The Cheat Sheet

Space internet is taking flight

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on: Jul 25, 2018
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Call me an ignoramus, but what on earth is space internet?

Well, it’s all about providing internet via satellites, ignoring the fibre optic cables which most of the world is relying on now to connect people to the web.

Again, why space? And what’s wrong with the cables?

Technically speaking, providing internet via satellites orbiting our humble Earth is a very expensive idea. But that doesn’t mean laying cables across continents and even under sea is cheap. That’s a nightmare in terms of logistics and infrastructure costs. Several companies and governments had in the past contemplated creating alternatives to the fibre cable and some of them had burnt their fingers doing so. In fact, the idea has been in circulation since the 1990s itself but the cost factor was a major stumbling block.

What changed, then?

SpaceX. In fact, the current phase of the race for space internet started in 2015 when Elon Musk-controlled SpaceX unveiled its plans to send micro-satellites into the lower orbit of the Earth and a helping hand came from search giant Google, which earmarked $1 billion into the project. It was during this period, Richard Branson of Virgin Group and Qualcomm announced a significant investment in a similar project by OneWeb (funded by SoftBank now).

Interesting; were there other players?

The same year, Samsung also expressed interest in getting on to the space to beam internet to the masses. The South Korean electronics company brought out a curiously-titled paper — ‘Mobile Internet from the Heavens’ — that year, suggesting low-cost micro-satellites could make space internet a reality sooner than expected. But everyone was playing safe and cautious, except, of course, Elon Musk.

Ha! He’s brave, I tell you.

Very soon, the success of SpaceX’s micro-satellites project has revamped faith in the idea of space internet and the way Facebook, especially its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, was bought into the idea of using drones or tiny satellites to provide internet for all, gave the concept an unusual fillip. Now, about ten companies are experimenting with space internet, and the lot includes biggies such as SpaceX, Samsung and Boeing and players such as OneWeb, Telesat LEO, SES O3B, Iridium Next and LeoSat.

That’s progress!

You said it. Now, SpaceX says it will send a bouquet of 4,425 broadband satellites by 2024, starting next year, and these tiny objects would be deployed on 83 orbital planes. Industry watchers feel this will change the game for space internet as the satellites can be easily managed and they can beam healthy signals. Meanwhile, Facebook has also announced that it would be launching a new satellite, Athena, dedicated to providing internet from space.

But what happened to its internet-beaming drone?

Last month, Facebook officially ended plans to develop Aquila, an autonomous drone it said would provide internet access. Now, it is taking the idea several notches up, literally, and is developing Athena, a satellite it wants to launch in 2019. The social media company says Athena would provide broadband access to “unserved and under-served areas” throughout the world.

Sounds good. But we must take Facebook with a pinch of celestial salt!

That depends on how its plans pan out. For now, the consensus is that the future of optical fibre cable-backed internet is dimming, especially as not many companies are interested in furthering the already laid networks. For one, Google, which focusses on offering low-cost internet to the masses, obviously to boost its services and business, has been holding its fibre investments. OneWeb’s recent partnership with Amazon’s grand space project called Blue Origin, to enhance space broadband, among other things, is also expected to help skyrocket the once-fancy-and-crazy idea of space internet.

Watch this space!

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on July 25, 2018

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