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Honk If You See A Dead SatelliteHonk If You See A Dead Satellite

Satellites, balloons, and drones -- oh my! Today's tech wunderkinds have found the answer to global warming.

Howard Anderson

December 23, 2014

5 Min Read

Let's talk satellites. About 2,500 of these birds are flinging about in earth orbit, half of them as dead as disco. Honk if you see one. Are satellites going to take over from cell towers? Remember that cable television was originally just a wire down the center of your street, but eventually that wire was fed by satellites compliments of HBO, Ted Turner, etc.

Now in case you hadn't noticed, the tech world is going nuts. Facebook paid $22 billion for WhatsApp. Uber has a valuation of $41 billion. Airbnb is worth more than any hotel chain. (My kid, who toiled in venture capital for Sequoia, asked me if I was going to be home this weekend. "Why? Do you want to borrow the house?" I asked him. "No," he answered. "I want to rent it out on Airbnb!" Note to self: Cut kid out of will.)

Mark Zuckerberg has thrown down the gauntlet on the next great technology movement. "Let's get high-speed access for EVERYONE! NOW!" About 43% of the world's population is connected to the Internet, but most of them connect at speeds that you would sneer at.

So imagine that you have the world's technology at your beck and call in order to solve the Internet access problem, and you had an almost infinite budget. What would you do?

[We have plenty of technology. What we don't have is enough money. Read Aging Of America: Internet To The Rescue.]

Satellites are great for point to multipoint. They're terrific if you're out of range of cell service. If you're a fighter pilot and your plane crashes, you're so happy to have an Iridium phone. But will they be bringing you high-speed Internet access to your iPhone n?

You've got a few choices. If you're like low-earth-orbit satellite operator Iridium, you have 66 of these birds flying overhead. Kind of like teeing off a golf ball in your tile bathroom. But you know what -- those suckers, which fly about 500 miles straight up, start falling six years after launch! (Duck!) Bill Gates was talking about launching low-earth-orbit birds 15 years ago, and it didn't make sense then and it doesn't make sense now.

Second choice: Launch fewer birds, but put them into high orbit, at 22,300 miles, and have them follow the earth. Here you need only three. But there's a problem: You have to send a message up and then send it back down -- that's roughly half a second. Zuckerberg can break lots of laws if he wants, but there are some laws of physics even those with $33 billion in net worth can't break. Another problem with these birds is that you need real rockets to get them up 22,000 miles, and that costs real dollars.

My brother-in-law who works at Iridium tells me that global warming has opened up that northern route over the ice cap -- and merchant ships need Internet access and communications -- so you're going to see a lot more geostationary birds in the sky. (Well, if you're a polar bear you'll see them. The rest of us will have to just trust that they're up there.)

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OK, so launching birds in either low-earth or high-earth orbit is costly even for those who count their net worth in scientific notation. Any other solutions? If Jeff Bezos can deliver a book by drone, why not Internet by drone? But what's a drone? It's a stationary device held up by battery power. What's better than that? And cheaper?

Balloons, like the Hindenburg. Well, kind of … think of hot air balloons that get WAY up there, fueled by helium. And launch lots of them, like Google is doing with Loon. Let them float about a dozen miles straight up, way above where commercial jets fly. And let the winds carry them … much cheaper than having to use rockets. And when they fly away too far, launch another. And another.

Or you can launch some Really Big Drones -- as big as 747s -- and just let them sit up there, bouncing high-speed communications down to us earthlings. That's what Zuckerberg and Google are playing with.

"How will we power them?" you ask. How about solar panels? It just might work. There aren't a lot of clouds up there in the ionosphere.

Or maybe an intermediate solution is medium-earth-orbit satellites, the kind Royal Caribbean is now starting to use to beam high-speed Internet access to its cruise ships. Instead of 22,000 or 500 miles up, how about an elevation that's "just right" -- satellites that hang at 5,000 miles straight up. They wouldn't be coming down as quickly as the LEOs.

It just dawned on me: What Zuckerberg and Bezos and the Googletwins are doing is solving global warming! Yes, they're going to launch enough satellites and balloons and drones to block out the sun. No more sunblock needed! The ice caps are coming back … but so is nuclear winter.

And they talk about the Law of Unintended Consequences.

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About the Author(s)

Howard Anderson

Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

Howard Anderson is on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He was the founder of the Yankee Group and co-founder of Battery Ventures. He attempts to keep his rampant skepticism from morphing into galloping cynicism, a battle he seems to be losing.

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