(Technology Review) – Providing Internet access from orbiting satellites—a concept that seemed to have died with the excesses of the dot-com boom—has returned thanks to SpaceX founder (and dot-com billionaire) Elon Musk. And while such a service would be expensive and risky to deploy, recent technological trends mean it’s no longer so out-of-this-world.
Musk has proposed a network of some 4,000 micro-satellites to provide broadband Internet services around the globe. SpaceX is partnering with Google and Fidelity Investments, which are investing $1 billion for a 10 percent stake in the endeavor. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm, meanwhile, are investing in a competing venture called OneWeb, which aims to build a similar network of micro-satellites.
In the late 1990s there were plans to deliver similar space services. “The dot-com bust dried up their financing and it never really got off the ground,” says Forecast International analyst Bill Ostrove. Those projects might have failed anyway, though, because it costs $60 million and $70 million to launch a satellite, and there’s always a decent chance that the payload will be lost to an accident.
Fiber-optic cables, in contrast, are easy and cheap to install, even in harsh environments like the ocean floor, and they can transmit huge amounts of data. Beaming data from a satellite is done by radio, and is limited by the available spectrum, as well as the amount of power a satellite can get from its solar panels. Most communications satellites have data-transfer speeds of around a gigabit per second, compared to several terabits per second for the fastest fiber.