Google, Elon Musk Collaborate on New 4,000 Bird Satellite Fleet for Internet Access; Will Compete with new WorldVu Venture

Elon Musk will be part of a new battle between global satellite fleets intended to bring Internet access to underserved people around the globe. SpaceX, Musk’s satellite firm, just got $1 billion from Google to help build a new satellite fleet.

Just days ago, Musk talked about  a new project aimed at putting up to 4,000 satellites into low Earth orbit to provide low-cost Internet access. The satellite system could start providing data services by 2020, though the full constellation could be in place by 2030, possibly. The cost of the venture could amount to $10 billion or more, Musk said.

Separately, WorldVu Satellites Ltd. has raised funding from Virgin Group and Qualcomm for a proposed global satellite internet company focusing on potential users in developing countries that cannot be reached by fixed or mobile networks, as well as to supply Internet access to flying aircraft.

The proposed network will cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, backers believe.

WorldVu Satellites founder Greg Wyler said. Wyler, formerly of satellite firm O3b, has been touting this idea for some time.

Virgin Group and Qualcomm are investors in the WorldVu “OneWeb Ltd.” service, which hopes to launch a constellation of 648 satellites. Investor Richard Branson thinks the total could eventually be higher than that. Branson also says voice service will be part of the core service.

Virgin is a sprawling conglomerate that now wants to build a new global satellite fleet to deliver Internet services to users who today do not have access by any other means.

Some might note that others have tried in the past, without much success, to create such networks, and few have tried to reach billions of people who today cannot afford to connect to the Internet.

But Virgin believes it has other assets that will help achieve OneWeb attain the goal of service at far lower costs.

Virgin Galactic’s “LauncherOne” program will be used to make frequent satellite launches at lower cost. Other launch partners. might be added, the press release announcing the venture hints.

Branson suggested that Virgin Galactic will be launching most of the OneWeb spacecraft, but not all of them.

“We have the biggest order ever for putting satellites into space,” Branson said. “By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky.”

The first launches are supposed to happen in early 2017. OneWeb controls a block of radio spectrum that it will use for the Internet service, but has to begin deploying the network to retain use of the frequencies, a typical requirement for spectrum grantees.

OneWeb’s satellites will weigh about 285 pounds and operate in a low-earth orbit about 750 miles above the planet’s surface. That has significant positive implications for potential bandwidth and latency performance, allowing much-lower latency than possible for geosynchronous satellites.

The deployment challenges will be significant for such a large fleet, but backers hope lower satellite and launch costs will help the venture provide consumer Internet access at far-lower prices than possible in the past.

Should both fleets be built and create sustainable business models, the task of getting billions of people Internet access for the first time will become a reality. That has implications for other existing satellite providers, as well as for mobile service providers providing Internet access.
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