In October, we speculated Elon Musk would launch a new ISP. In December, we discussed the details of the plan, that his new company would use a network of satellites to bring the Internet from space. Now come two new stories that are big news for satellite Internet. The first is that another billionaire industrialist is starting a satellite-based ISP to compete with Musk’s SpaceX. And the second bit of big news comes from SpaceX itself. Rocket Man If there’s another modern entrepreneur to match Elon Musk’s drive and ambition, it’s Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. His Virgin brands are well-known, but it’s worth mentioning that his Virgin Galactic bills itself as the world’s first commercial spaceline. Its stated goal is “democratizing access to space for the benefit of life on Earth.” Not content with building craft to take the people from Earth to space, he now wants to bring the Internet from space to Earth. He’s teamed his Virgin Group with chip maker Qualcomm and satellite builder OneWeb to make this goal a reality, and it’s easy to see the role each will play in the venture. Qualcomm tech will provide the heart of nearly 650 OneWeb satellites, which will reach orbit aboard Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne launch vehicle. The satellite cluster will provide access via Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G and LTE networks, so users will be able to connect using an assortment of devices and mobile plans. OneWeb points out that the global reach will make the service especially useful to rural areas, and even to emergency responders in need of reliable communication lines. To Boldly Look at Cat Pictures Where None Have Looked Before Here on Earth, Musk’s satellite ISP will have some competition, but Musk’s ambitions aren’t limited to our planet alone. So naturally, his plan is to expand his satellite Internet all the way to Mars—really. There aren’t many customers on Mars yet, but he’s previously said he hopes to beat NASA to Mars with a manned voyage to the planet by 2026. Mars One, planning its own trip to Mars, estimates it will take seven months to reach the red planet, so astronauts will need something to do along the way. Once they’re there, communications will be important, too. And the good news is that light travels faster in a vacuum than it does through fiber optic cable, so all those cat pictures and videos of crazy Russian drivers should load exceptionally fast. That’s good because the huge distances involved mean a bare minimum of a six-minute delay, and possibly more, between the time you click a link and the time the server sends a response. Six Whole Minutes? For those used to fast connections here on Earth, that six minute wait will seem endless. But let’s keep some perspective: you’re traveling to Mars—Mars, people. If that doesn’t amaze you, go talk to your grandparents about the world they grew up in. After all, technology should be amazing. If you’re not saying “wow” every time you use the Internet, maybe it’s time you found a new plan. [zipfinder] Photo by Sweetie187/Flikr In October, we ran an article speculating that Elon Musk was planning on building a new Internet Service Provider (ISP). While there’s still no official news that the speculation is true, all signs point to that being the case. New details are providing a better picture of the technology likely to be used, and of course it’s in keeping with Musk’s penchant for cutting-edge technologies. From the look of things, Musk’s new venture will almost certainly be bringing you high-speed Internet access from space. They Have the Technology If there’s anyone who can rebuild the Internet, making it better, stronger, and faster than it was before, it’s someone like Musk. In addition to Tesla, he’s founder and CEO of SpaceX, a manufacturer of rockets and spacecraft, with “the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” It’s the first private company to send a payload into space, deliver it to the International Space Station (ISS), and return the supply vehicle to Earth. It’s now a regular supplier of the ISS, and it will soon be capable of carrying astronauts to orbit. SpaceX has proven its ability to deliver cargo into space. To build an ISP, Musk needed a partner in the satellite business, which he’s found in WorldVu Satellites. A tweet from Musk confirms the scope of the project. Together, they plan to launch a fleet of up to 700 commercial satellites, a number that would be ten times the size of the largest current commercial fleet. Of course, it’s possible these satellites will have a purpose other than Internet delivery, but that seems to be everyone’s guess. It’s Been Done Before, But Internet by satellite is not itself a new idea. HughesNet offers satellite Internet service, but their fastest plans currently reach only 15 Mbps. That’s not bad, but it’s hard to imagine SpaceX and WorldVu would invest in such an expensive project if that’s all their technology can do. So far, Tesla and SpaceX have been more revolutionary than evolutionary, so it’s a safe bet Musk will demand his company do significantly better than existing technologies. Obviously, speed won’t be the only thing he’s after. One potential advantage to Internet by satellite is it can be beamed pretty much anywhere. Ironically, delivering data a thousand miles from space could be easier than the last mile, which has been one problem rural high-speed connections have always had to contend with. Whether these satellites will be the answer rural Internet subscribers have been waiting for could depend on whether the last mile of a customer’s connection would come via a satellite receiver, cable, or other technology. Even so, we doubt it’s a detail Musk will overlook in his planning. Expect it to Be Cool, Too Musk already showed he’s as much a fan of style as function. Whether you’re looking at a Tesla Roadster or just the SpaceX website, it’s easy to see just how much value he places in design. It won’t surprise us at all if his system’s hardware and interface rivals Apple for elegance and functionality. More News Next Year Musk says an official announcement on the SpaceX/WorldVu venture is 2-3 months away, meaning we should know more in early 2015. And even when that announcement comes, building and launching this many satellites will take years. If you can’t wait that long to improve your enjoyment of the web, see high-speed plans available in your area right now by entering your zip code below. Image from Chris Devers/Flickr [zipfinder]
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