Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race - InformationWeek
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Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race

A plan to provide Internet from space could bring Web access to billions.

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Space … the final frontier … of the Internet. Elon Musk and SpaceX plan it that way, at least. SpaceX has filed with the FCC to begin testing the possibility of creating an ISP with a network made entirely of satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The company hopes to test the idea next year. If it works, SpaceX could conceivably rival major ISPs in urban areas and bring Internet service to parts of the world where it is difficult to get broadband.

The secret is in the orbit. Most satellite Internet services can provide decent speed in terms of uploads and downloads, but they have a major latency problem. Most of their satellites hang around in orbit 23,000 miles from Earth. That means even at the speed of light it takes 550 milliseconds for a signal to get to them and back. That's over half a second of latency, before factoring in any other common network latency issues. Some older systems have as much as a second of latency, and most newer systems brag that they can get it down to 600 milliseconds or so.

Compare that to the 29.6-millisecond latency of the average terrestrial service and you see the problem. For any low-latency enterprise needs (especially in sectors such as financial services) even 29.6 milliseconds is too much time. Satellite is out. For any home gamers it's impossible.

SpaceX has a simple solution. It is putting its satellites at low-Earth orbit, only 90 miles up. That should reduce latency. Of course, the company isn't the first to think of this. There's been an ongoing Internet space race for at least a decade. Companies such as Globalstar and Iridium have tried something similar (and gone bankrupt, switching to telephone service). Their speeds were too low because when you are that close to Earth, you are a pretty fast-moving target, and it is difficult to stay in communication with a single satellite.

In 2011, a company called COMMstellation proposed to create a group of 78 satellites in low orbit to tackle the problem. A group backed by Richard Branson, called OneWeb, proposes a 700-satellite group at about 500 miles up.

SpaceX plans on 4,000 satellites at 90 miles up, passing signals between each other so it is easy to send and receive signals. That should reduce latency. And if it works, it brings broadband Internet access to parts of the globe that have none, or are stuck with dial-up speeds. There are 4.4 billion people in the world without Internet access, and for many of them it's due to a lack of options (though a lack of money is also part of the problem). It also means SpaceX can go toe-to-toe with Comcast and Time Warner in the commercial ISP space.

(Image: SpaceX)

(Image: SpaceX)

Of course, 4,000 satellites is no small number. SpaceX needs to make much smaller satellites than the ones now used by commercial TV and Internet companies, which can weigh as much as 8,000 lbs at launch. SpaceX has arguably the cheapest rocket in the world (stats differ based on how you judge cost), but it is still not feasible to put 4,000 4-ton satellites into space at a cost of roughly $10,000-$20,000 per ton.

[ The cost of getting your company into space is getting cheaper. Read NASA, CASIS Show How Your Company Space Strategy Can Work. ]

But satellites are getting smaller. The military has experimented with communications satellites weighing as little as 22 lbs. The smallest satellites in the world now are measured in ounces, but obviously couldn't hold enough communications equipment. The SpaceX FCC filing asks for two experimental "microsatellites" to be launched. We don't know if these prototypes are the same size as the final versions that will create the network. If so, it is possible SpaceX could launch hundreds of satellites in a single launch, and 4,000 is entirely possible.

If launching the satellites is a hurdle SpaceX feels it's overcome, the last hurdle is passing off the signals. That's probably where the $1 billion investment from Google comes into play. Google has had various projects of its own in the works for quite some time, including a space project and a low-orbit balloon project planned on a pass-off concept similar to what SpaceX is proposing.

If the test works, SpaceX plans to be in the Internet business by 2020. With 4.4 billion potential new customers -- not to mention the ability to fight for existing ISP customers from space -- this is a potential game changer. Though many have walked down this path before and failed, SpaceX may have finally assembled the technology and space experience to make it happen.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
6/23/2015 | 2:25:58 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
It may be a stretch to compare him with divinci, given the state of humanity at the time he was being a genius. In other words, Musk has an incredible baseline of technology and human understanding to build from. But my problem was finding someone comparable between Musk and divinci, simply because of Musk's range. Any other takers out there?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/23/2015 | 1:37:08 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
@broadway0474- The divinci comparison is interesting, because a lot of the stuff he drew never worked in his era but became the inspiration for something later. Musk is accused of ocasionally biting off more than he can chew, too. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
6/19/2015 | 8:46:52 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
That's an interesting comparison. I was daring to even think divinci.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/19/2015 | 12:27:49 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
@Broadway0474- Yes, personally, I think of Elon Musk more as Wal Disney than as Steve Jobs. Jobs innovated in a rather narrow category of products. Disney not only made cartoons but invented new ways to shoot them, visualized (if not invented himself) advances in robotics, transportation, and ways of living. 

Some people dream about the way the future should be lived. I love those people. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
6/19/2015 | 8:14:40 AM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
Good point, David. It reminds me of John Sculley's recent book, Moonshot!, in which he discussed so-called adaptive innovators, people who can zoom out to see across multiple industries, and understand how advances in one can benefit another, then zoom back into the specific industries to work the actual details to make it happen. Musk is definitely one of those, perhaps more Jobsian than Jobs.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/16/2015 | 3:06:21 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
@broadway0474- I don't think so. When Musk first got into cars and space he made a specific point of saying the two had a lot to learn from each other. Space didn't know how to standarize production and cars had lost their innovative edge. 

The solar companies and batteries make sense, too, since both space and cars will need increasingly better energy options. Space relies on a lot of solar and his cars need better batteries.

I think the hyperloop is an extension of this strategy as well since an electric truck or train is beyond our abilities right now. The internet is an extension of networking all of those things as well. I suspect one of the hidden desires for doing this is to provide network capabilities to cars as they leave urban areas.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
6/16/2015 | 2:34:11 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
With the hyperloop and now this initiative, not to mention the "standard" operations of his companies, how does Elon Musk keep all these balls in the air? Is this a strategy of just trying as much as possible in the hopes that one thing sticks? Sort of the hit the one grand-slam/pick the one unicorn approach of many venture capitalists?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/11/2015 | 3:02:47 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
@zerox203- Yeah, one of the things that definitelys ticks out to me is the timeline. I don't see how even if they launched the test today and it was a total success they'd get government approval in time to launch and be online in 5 years. The government doesn't work at the pace of business sadly.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
6/11/2015 | 2:47:09 PM
Re: Elon Musk, SpaceX Rocket Into Internet Space Race
This is very cool. Consumers have had just about enough of the one-ISP choice model and, with bandwidth needs only going up thanks to IoT, this could be a great way to shake things up without having to 'fight' existing ISPs on the ground. As Waregl smartly said, one hand sort of washes the other here - even if it's not suitable for everyone or every application (and we don't know yet, with many specifics yet to be filled in), many types of traffic could be offloaded onto the satelite net, relieving congestion on the 'terrestrial' internet lines and on 4G - those services improve, people who have no options get one, everyone wins. It seems like SpaceX has all their bases covered here and is making a quantum leap when you compare those numbers to previous service attempts.

Like others, that SpaceX/Musk name gives me a mix of confidence and trepidation. The SpaceX rockets work (which is amazing), so I trust there's sound technology at the core. Given Musk's humanitarian predilections, I expect if the service comes to fruition, they'll do the right thing in getting it to those who need it (like waregl's coke-machine idea), and the pricing for the rest of us will be fair. It's everything in between I'm worried about. They might be jumping the gun a bit with their big claims. Just the regulatory concerns here are huge (look at that application form!). They're not even approved for this pre-test yet. Look at all the pushback Tesla Motors has received (Apples to Oranges, I know).  It could be a decade before the service is ready, which likely has a lot to do with what sunk others' attempts (what ever happened to Google Loon?). The landscape could change a lot between now and then.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/11/2015 | 1:33:29 PM
Re: SpaceX Bob Johnson-Atlanta
@waregl- Thanks for the comment. They got $1 billion in VC investment from Google. I suspect between that and their own cash reserves that's going to be a heck of a start. If the tests work, I suspect that cash won't be the problem. 

Out of curiosity, is your name waregl short for War Eagle? Are you an Auburn grad? 
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