Elon Musk’s space company has asked the federal government for permission to begin testing on an ambitious project to beam Internet service from space, a significant step forward for an initiative that could create another major competitor to Comcast, AT&T and other telecom companies.
The plan calls for launching a constellation of 4, 000 small and cheap satellites that would beam high-speed Internet signals to all parts of the globe, including its most remote regions. Musk has said the effort “would be like rebuilding the Internet in space.”
If successful, the attempt could transform SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., from a pure rocket company into a massive high-speed-Internet provider that would take on major companies in the developed world but also make first-time customers out of the billions of people who are currently not online.
The idea of saturating Earth with Internet signals from space has long been the dream of prominent business tycoons, including Bill Gates in the 1990s. But many of these ventures have run into obstacles that Musk is working to avoid. Musk has his own rocket, and he has said his swarm of satellites will be more efficient and inexpensive than relying on a handful of big devices that are difficult to replace.
Dish Network and DirecTV, for instance, have for years relied on a few older satellites that are cast much farther into space and can serve only specific regions such as the United States. SpaceX’s web of satellites would wrap around Earth in low orbit, handing off Internet signals to one another to make connections more reliable and to reach more areas.Elon Musk unveils SpaceX's new seven-seat Dragon V2 spacecraft, in Hawthorne, Calif., last year. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
The filing, made with the Federal Communications Commission late last month, is the first public glimpse into how Musk will move ahead with the project.
Musk isn’t the only billionaire entrepreneur who is pursuing such an idea. Virgin’s Richard Branson has partnered with a company with similar ambitions. Both ventures would have to succeed where many have failed.
Facebook recently abandoned its plan to build a $500 million satellite that would provide Internet service across the globe, according to the Information, a tech site.
And a previous effort by a firm called LightSquared to use satellites to provide wireless service fell apart three years ago, despite initial backing from the FCC. Military officials complained at the time that the technology interfered with the radar used by planes — a problem that shouldn’t hinder Musk’s effort, industry officials said.
Musk’s FCC filing proposes tests starting next year. If all goes well, the service could be up and running in about five years.
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