Matthew Biggins


The Promise of Ubiquitous Internet: A SpaceX Story

Let’s face it. We are attached to our phones. We feel phantom vibrations when we wrongly think our phone vibrates indicating we got a message. We get anxiety when we don’t have our phones with us and feel as if we lost a body part. We are helpless when our phone batteries die.

While this article won’t help you with the whole losing your phone thing, there is hope my friends. A solution to that battery problem is a few years away.

But even more exciting: within the next 10 years, we may never lose Internet access again. Ubiquitous, ever-present, globe-encompassing Internet…beamed from space. No, it is not aliens, but rather Elon Musk — so not far off.

Musk’s rocket company SpaceX is in the news recently, and for good reason, they just re-launched a rocket they had previously used before (more on that later). What you probably won’t hear about though, is what this means for the SpaceX plan to launch an array of 4,425 satellites to blanket the earth in up to 1 Gbps Internet speed per user. That is quite a statement, so let’s parse out a few things.

1) To put that number of satellites in context, there are currently less than 1,500 functioning satellites orbiting earth. Musk and SpaceX plan to nearly 3x that!

2) 1Gbps is 44x faster than my current Comcast Internet download speed.

or for those visual learners:

3) Groundwork for this initiative began in 2014, but there is no definitive timeline due to uncertainties surrounding technological developments. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell confirmed this back in October. And Musk says it will take more than 5 years to complete.

4) This array will cost at least $10 billion according to SpaceX with potential revenue of $30 billion by 2025 by some estimates.

But, you may be wondering hasn’t this been tried before? Well, yes but this time is different. The first attempt happened 20 years ago when Teledesic, a company backed by a cool $1 billion, burned through capital before failing in the early 2000s. A handful of other ventures have ended in bankruptcy. OneWeb has plans to provide similar Internet access, albeit on a smaller scale of 648 satellites. However, these companies all face or faced one similar problem that SpaceX does not.

Vertical integration. For one, SpaceX does the majority of their own manufacturing and is in the process of building their own satellites. And more importantly, SpaceX already has the cheapest rocket launch costs: ~$60 million compared to ULA’s ~$125 million (this is being generous to ULA). And with the first reusable rocket successfully re-launched this past week…

…in the near term the cost could decrease by more than an order of magnitude — costing millions as opposed to tens of millions on a per launch basis. Think about it. If a rocket can reliably be used 10 times, then each flight up need only cost a tenth as much. This passes the common sense test. For an industry where costs still routinely run hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the cost a decade ago before SpaceX had launched its first rocket, this is nothing short of miraculous. What all this means is that the SpaceX satellite plans will have direct access to the lowest-cost and most reliable rockets, because they make them. No other satellite maker or rocket company has this unique advantage SpaceX does, even if most of its competitors are governments.

The result will be nothing short of a complete revolution in the Space industry. Besides incredibly fast, ubiquitous, and cheap Internet, humanity will get unprecedented access to space and the fertile ground this promises for continued innovation.

So in the future when you are camping in Zion National Park and binging on your latest Netflix obsession. Be sure to take a moment to look up at the night sky and see if you can spot the tiny speck that is Mars. For without the dream of setting foot there, SpaceX never would have got its start and you would now be stuck in a national park without Netflix. What a shame that would be.

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