Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Satellite broadband initiatives have had a mixed track record. In the 1990s, several companies launched satellite-based Internet services — names that come to mind include Teledesic, which was backed by Bill Gates, as well as Iridium and Globalstar. These all had grand plans to blanket the planet with Internet, only to falter after costs soared and money from investors dried up.
A few companies including Viasat and EchoStar have managed to build businesses around providing broadband services using satellites to areas that are underserved with connectivity.
Seeing opportunity to bring connectivity and services to more people, a growing number of companies believe that Internet access through satellites is a way forward. The biggest players include Facebook, Google, Elon Musk's SpaceX, and SoftBank-backed OneWeb. Almost half of the world's population is still not connected to the Internet, so it's no wonder companies are exploring the use of satellites to spread connectivity.
SpaceX has been a disruptive force in the worldwide satellite launch industry, as its launch services are less expensive than many of its rivals. After shaking up the automotive sector with its Tesla electric car and venturing into putting satellites in space, Elon Musk is turning his attention to the satellite Internet business.
SpaceX's initiative, called Starlink, involves sending 12,000 satellites into orbit over the next few years, or 50 percent more than the total number of objects blasted into space since Sputnik. The satellites, which are about the size of a mini fridge, would orbit at as low as 340 miles, well below typical communication satellites that are parked in geostationary orbit at 22,300 miles. In 2018, Starlink sent up its first two test craft and has been given the go-ahead by the US government for a full 12,000-bird fleet.
Earlier in February 2019, SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission seeking the green light to deploy up to 1 million stations on Earth to receive transmissions from its planned satellite broadband constellation. SpaceX asked the US regulator for quick approval to support its "ambitious timetable for launching satellites and deploying broadband services". The company's goal is to roll out Internet services in 2020 with an initial satellite launch by mid-2019.
Elon Musk is known to keep to his deadlines and achieve the improbable, and it's possible that he'll do just that with this lofty goal. However, this will be an expensive project and comes at a time when 5G fixed-wireless services are coming to realization, which will shrink the market for satellite broadband. There's still plenty of need for the connectivity that Starlink might address, but it's not clear how the target markets will truly fund this mission.