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Bringing cheap, high-speed internet access to every inch of the Earth would change the world as we know it. And probably anger your internet company.
Writer Tim Urban sat down with a top SpaceX engineer to learn more about how this game-changing satellite network will work.
Right now, only the US, Europe, and a few parts of India and Asia have strong and reliable internet service. Most of the rest of the world has limited access or, in remote regions, none at all.
SpaceX's unnamed project could change everything, according to Rajeev Badyal, the company's vice president of avionics engineering, who spoke with Urban for his blog, Wait But Why.
Once the 4,000-satellite network is in place, Badyal said all you'd need "is a small, pizza-box shaped receiver, which could be put anywhere outside, and you could have fast internet on the North Pole, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the top of Mount Everest—anywhere," Urban wrote in a post titled "How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars."
Of course, building the world's first satellite global internet service won't be easy.
Right now there's about 550,000 miles of fiber optic cables under our oceans that help connect us to the web. They account for 99% of international communication (satellites only account for 1%). Even though laying one cable takes months and hundreds of millions of dollars, it's still cheaper than satellite internet. But that could change if satellite technology gets a big push forward from SpaceX.
These days it costs roughly half a billion dollars to build and launch one satellite into space, according to Urban. Musk wants to launch three times the number of satellites in space right now — so cost has to come down to make the plan viable.
One big cost is the rocket, since they can only be used once. (After delivering a payload to orbit, rockets fall back to Earth and are destroyed.) Satellites, meanwhile, are typically big, heavy, and expensive one-off engineering marvels.
SpaceX is trying to solve the rocket problem by building the world's first truly reusable model: one that launches, returns to Earth, and lands itself on a barge that pilots the rocket back to shore. Once that's figured out, Musk wants to lower the cost of satellites, presumably by making them smaller and using mass-manufacturing.
This isn't exactly welcome news to internet providers. A handful of companies have cornered the market because they can afford to lay miles of cables, or pay for expensive satellites and rocket launches, while newer and smaller companies can't. This high-stakes, low-competition setup is part of the reason we pay so much for internet access, Urban writes, and is also why we're still using the same clunky satellite technology from 25 years ago.
Musk threatens to shake up the industry with his new plan, and he hasn't been shy about calling out future competitors:
“In cases where people are stuck with Time Warner or Comcast, this would provide an opportunity to leave," he said during a June announcement, to a huge response from the crowd.
A satellite program like the one Musk envisions could cost around $10 billion and take at least five years to set up, according to reports from earlier this year. Facebook and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson have also made moves to get in on the satellite internet game, but both of those projects are stalled over concerns about cost.
Whoever creates the first huge global network of internet satellites, cheap and fast web access would only be the start. Badyal told Urban you could trick out the satellites with cameras and scientific instruments, helping meteorologists create a live global weather map, for example, or law enforcement officials track down criminals. You could also build a similar satellite network around Mars to get the first Martian colonists online.
SpaceX still has a lot of work to do if it's going to succeed. For one, it has yet to figure out the whole reusable rocket thing. It also needs to get the cost well below what it takes to lay fiber-optic cables. Rural areas that aren't connected yet may welcome a satellite internet network, but areas that are already well connected would need a big incentive (lower cost) to switch from fiber optics to satellite.
But Musk seems confident and committed. He says the satellite program could be a great revenue stream for SpaceX — one he'd ultimately use to put the first humans on Mars.