Elon Musk has asked the U.S. government for permission to more than double the number of satellites currently in orbit as part of SpaceX’s plans to create a global Wi-Fi network.
Is this another of Musk’s wacky ideas?
Well, yes and no. Announced last year, the project initially sounded a bit farfetched, but SpaceX is now looking to get things up and running. The company has filed detailed technical descriptions of how the project will work with the Federal Communications Commission, seeking permission to launch a hell of a lot of satellites into space.
Between active and inactive satellites floating around in space, there are just over 4,000 orbiting the earth. SpaceX wants to eventually launch 4,425 extra satellites to create a global communications array which could provide high-speed internet access to the entire world.
Will it be faster than dial-up?
Yes. SpaceX claims that when the system is up-and-running it will provide a low-latency 1 gigabit per second connection for every user.
Given that Akamai’s State of the Internet report said that the global average connection speed in the second quarter of 2016 was 6.1 megabits per second (over 200 times slower), Musk’s system would be a significant upgrade for a lot of people.
Who will be able to get it?
Just about everyone. In a statement, SpaceX said: “Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service.”
According to a report by UNESCO published last July, 57% of the world’s population is still offline “often because the necessary connectivity is not present or not affordable.”
How big are these satellites?
According to the company’s FCC filing, the satellites themselves will weigh about 850 pounds (386 kg). The satellites will be positioned between 1149 km to 1324 km above the earth’s surface.
“The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, government and professional users worldwide,” SpaceX said in technical documents accompanying its filing.
When can I log in?
Nobody knows. SpaceX’s filing with the FCC was not an indication that the project is ready to launch – the company was simply meeting a deadline to file interest with the regulator. It has given no indication as to when it will begin launching these satellites or how much it will cost end users.
SpaceX says the first phase of the $10 billion plan would see a measly 800 satellites launched into orbit, providing internet coverage for the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each satellite can reach an area with a radius of over 650 miles.
Is there any competition for SpaceX?
Yes. Satellite companies like Intelsat, SES, Telesat and Boeing are all looking to deploy their own systems (which could make space pretty crowded). Last year Intelsat asked the FCC to block SpaceX’s planned satellite system as it could interfere with its own satellites.
Facebook is investigating satellite internet systems as a solution for connecting the world. Google, which is an investor in SpaceX, also has Project Loon, a plan to connect the world using hot air balloons.