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Elon Musk just ignited the race to build the space internet


SpaceX's Starlink launch is the start of a race to bring the entire Earth’s population online, but who will actually use the space internet?



How do you connect to the internet? You probably have a Wi-Fi network at home, or use your mobile phone network, to send and receive data from one of a number of Earth-based providers. The coming years could bring a drastic change, however, with the advent of new satellite space internet services from companies like SpaceX and OneWeb, which promise to bring billions more people online by 2021.

It’s estimated that about 3.3 billion people lack access to the internet, but Elon Musk is trying to change that. On Thursday, May 23 – after two cancelled launches the week before – SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, in Florida, as part of the firm’s mission to bring low-cost, high-speed internet to the world.

SpaceX is one of at least nine companies that plan to launch large constellations of satellites – Musk’s firm alone says it will launch 12,000 – providing global coverage of the planet to beam internet to the ground from space using radio waves.

“The amount of people around the globe without routine internet access is staggering, and terrestrial companies have shown little interest is meeting the needs of these rural customers,” says Caleb Williams from the US-based consulting firm SpaceWorks. “Space-based internet services can help to bridge this divide, bringing potentially billions of people online.”

Among this race with US-based SpaceX and OneWeb are LeoSat from the Netherlands, Telesat and Kepler Communications from Canada, and several others, all of whom have approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US for their constellations. Others such as Amazon, which revealed its 3,000-satellite Project Kuiper constellation earlier this year, also have plans to launch similar services.

None of the nine companies with FCC approval so far have yet revealed how their services will work exactly, nor how much they will cost. What we do know is you will require a dish of some sort on the ground, not unlike satellite TV and likely costing in the region of hundreds or thousands of pounds, to connect to one of these constellations.

“The terminals that the end-users will use to connect are a tremendous barrier as they are very expensive,” says Lluc Palerm-Serra, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research in Spain, noting that many countries also have strict regulatory systems in place that companies will need to navigate in order to provide a satellite internet service. “Launching a global service is very tough. No [internet service provider] has done that before as they always have a [single] country focus.”

This highlights one of the key questions already emerging about these space internet services. While many tout their goal of connecting the whole world to the web, will everyone be able to afford it? And does everyone even want to be online? In June 2018 Facebook shelved plans to build its own high-altitude drone that it had been intending to use to beam the internet to rural areas. The drone had previously crashed.

“If you’re trying to connect the really impoverished parts of the world where they struggle to meet basic needs like food, water, even electricity as well, then the concept of them being able to afford the internet is unclear,” says Manny Shar, head of analytics at Bryce Space and Technology in London. “The demand has still to be proven for these services.”

Satellite internet itself is not new. Several companies, such as Hughes Communications and ViaSat in the US, already offer a satellite internet services which let people connect to the internet on a plane. The former operates two satellites in geostationary orbit, at an altitude of 35,000 kilometres (22,000 miles), with a third to launch in 2021. The company has 1.3 million users in the US.

Where new mega constellations hope to exceed existing systems is in speed and coverage, and perhaps price. Satellite internet at the moment will cost you about £40 to £80 a month, depending on where you live and what download speeds you’re after. It’s unclear how much the new services will cost, but being competitive will be key.

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