The second coming of the Internet

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on July 08, 2015

Global network: Small satellites in low Earth orbit could be a game-changer.

A new space race is underway and this time it won't involve planting flags on desolate rocks

About a decade and a half ago, a scientist working for NIIT carved a hole in a wall next to a slum and put a computer in it. He observed as children from the slum ‘thought’ themselves how to use the computer with no supervision. Sugata Mitra’s “hole in the wall” experiment was repeated multiple times in different places and the conclusions were simple but groundbreaking. Access to technology can change lives.

Connecting the next billion people to the Internet is a challenge that technology companies, governments and philanthropists around the world have repeatedly acknowledged in recent times. Wiring the world is an expensive and messy proposition. Satellite Internet could provide a simpler answer.

Satellites have always been an essential link in the telecommunication network, relaying signals where cables cannot reach. However, most of the existing communications satellites were designed to maximise coverage area at the cost of bandwidth and latency. These satellites, most of them extremely large, orbit at a fixed position about 36,000 kms above the equator in what is known as a geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). And while they can and are used to provide Internet access, mostly in remote areas, the service is unreliable and very expensive. With satellite designs getting more sophisticated and launches getting cheaper, new wisdom states that a large number of smaller, constantly moving satellites deployed in medium Earth (MEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO), could be used to provide stable, high-speed Internet access across the planet.

In typical fashion, Silicon Valley-heavyweights Facebook and Google were first to join the game. However, they shelved their satellite plans in favour of drones and hot air balloons respectively. The exit of the two tech giants has not fazed the remaining players. The satellite Internet business has seen its fair share of bankruptcies and withdrawals over the years.

Musk vs Wyler

Amongst the remaining contenders, all the buzz is behind Elon Musk, the maverick entrepreneur who dreams of one day colonizing Mars but is currently more famous for his electric cars. Musk’s company, SpaceX, has proven in-house rocket launching capabilities and $1 billion in backing from Google and Fidelity Investments. However, Musk is still at the drawing board while Greg Wyler, who was briefly in the Google camp, already knows what it takes to run a satellite network and more importantly, monetize it. Wyler founded O3b, which used a network of 12 satellites to become the largest ISP in the Pacific in a matter of months.

His new company, OneWeb plans to put 648 satellites into LEO- a modest target compared to SpaceX’s 4000. OneWeb also has a range of investors and partners. Virgin Galactic will launch its satellites and Airbus will design and build them.

Bharti Airtel announced this week that it is investing in OneWeb, with a view to using its satellite network as a backbone to provide Internet in underserved areas of Africa. The business plans behind SpaceX and OneWeb’s Internet efforts are murky at this stage. The companies are currently peddling a potent mix of humanitarian and technological incentives to potential investors. Creating a truly world wide network that can function in spite of natural disasters and cable cuts is a project that could potentially earn someone a page in the history books.

Challenges abound

Wyler and Musk would be wise to read up on the preceding pages of the same book though. The ‘90s saw many cautionary tales of companies with similarly grand visions of connecting the world. Teledesic, which had Bill Gates as one of its principal investors, Alcatel’s SkyBridge and mobile networks Iridium and GlobalStar all failed at the satellite Internet game.

While Musk is still 5 years away from implementation by his own admission, Wyler believes OneWeb will be running by 2018. The deal with Airtel and other telcos indicates that OneWeb will offer backend services, leaving ISPs to deal with end users. All this is contingent on Virgin Galactic managing to launch hundreds of satellites- a tall order considering their launch vehicle is still a year away at the very least.

Right to Internet has become a major part of the legislative agenda the world over. The Indian government’s recently launched Digital India program affirmed that availability of high speed internet to citizens is a core utility.

Their approach to providing this utility has been to throw money at the problem. While the government tries to wire the country at massive expense, private companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are taking the innovative route to reaching the unconnected. They face overwhelming odds in this task. Success could mean a second coming for the Internet. And this time, the whole world will be invited to the party.

Published on July 08, 2015

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