SpaceX is pushing hard to bring an internet satellite network to space
SpaceX has been quietly meeting with the FCC to advocate for one of its least-known projects. According to recent disclosures, the company met with FCC officials twice in recent weeks: first with a wireless advisor on February 28th and again on March 10th with Chairman Pai himself.
The same two topics came up at each meeting: the first was a stalled proposal to ease the regulatory demands on commercial space launches. The second was far more ambitious: SpaceX is seeking a license for a lucrative, globe-spanning satellite network that would bring terrestrial internet into space. Musk didn’t attend either meeting, but SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell was there in his place. (SpaceX declined to comment beyond its public filing.)
Musk has been batting around the idea of a "space internet" for years, initially proposing it as a way to connect SpaceX’s Martian colonists. In the near-term, the system can be adapted to deliver easy, continuous access to base stations around Earth, providing simple connectivity to the planet’s most remote communities. A proposal filed in November shows how the system would actually work: 4,425 satellites in non-geostationary orbit traveling in a tightly choreographed ballet 700 miles above the surface of the Earth, keeping at least one satellite 40 degrees above the horizon at nearly every spot on Earth.
Companies have long toyed with the idea of a satellite network that delivers data directly to individual devices or small base stations. In the ‘90s, Motorola backed a similar project called Iridium. But, torn between spiraling investment costs and waning consumer interest, the project went bankrupt just nine months after launch. After an estimated $6 billion in development costs, the firm was bought by investors for $35 million in 2000. Iridium’s main competitor, the Qualcomm-backed Globalstar, met a similar fate.
But now the dream of a globe-spanning satellite network looks like an increasingly feasible reality, particularly with 5G technologies just a few years away, promising new devices and new demand for data. That’s attracting investment from a batch of satellite providers that includes SpaceX, its longtime rival Boeing, and a more recent challenger called OneWeb, all of whom have proposed similar constellations. And all three would employ similar portions of the wireless spectrum to complete their network.
The business risk of building such a network is substantial. The constellations will cost at least 6 billion dollars, with costs growing as each project scales up. With the constellations at least five years away from operation, many observers think it’s unlikely all three companies will go the distance, with funding and regulatory support consolidating around the likely winner. If the resulting winner becomes an integral part of the cellular network, it’s easy to envision making that money back, but it’s just as easy to imagine the whole thing spiraling into bankruptcy before reaching the finish line.