Google has considered both balloons and drones in its quest to spread high-speed Internet access across the globe. Now the Internet giant aims to go even higher by investing billions in a fleet of satellites that could help reach "the other 3 billion" people who live in regions of the world lacking broadband Internet access.
The new Google satellite venture envisions at least 180 small, orbiters flying at lower altitudes than most satellites and delivering high data capacity services, according to the Wall Street Journal. Cost estimates by "people familiar with the project" range between $1 billion and $3 billion, depending on a planned later phase that could double the number of satellites. But analysts interviewed by the Wall Street Journal gave wildly varying cost estimates ranging from $600 million at the low end to an astronomical $20 billion at the high end.
Leading the satellite project is Greg Wyler, founder of the Dutch satellite-communications startup O3b Networks Ltd., who recently joined Google along with his company's former chief technology officer. O3b has already independently launched the first of about a dozen satellites aimed at providing broadband Internet access to regions on both sides of the equator.
Most high-bandwidth satellites operate in geostationary orbits about 36 000 kilometers above the Earth's equator—an altitude that translates into lag time for data traveling back and forth between space and Earth. By comparison, O3b has placed its satellites into orbits at about one-fourth that height. The startup must place more satellites into the lower orbits in order to achieve the same geographical coverage, but it cut the time for round-trip data delays from an average of 638 milliseconds to less than 150 ms.
Google wants to take O3b's approach a step further by launching a larger swarm of smaller satellites into an even lower Earth orbit. These would weigh less than 113 kilograms, as opposed to the 680 kilograms of O3b's current design.
The new satellite initiative represents the latest evolution in Google's race against Facebook to reach potential new customers in regions of the world without broadband Internet access. Google initially seemed to put high hopes on Project Loon's effort to use thousands of balloons to help provide the necessary geographical coverage. But the company's recent acquisition of Titan Aerospace, a startup developing solar-powered drones capable of serving as "atmospheric satellites," may provide a new direction in combination with O3b's satellites.
The new satellite venture with O3b also means Google now has ownership or a stake in most of the five technological approaches IEEE Spectrum previously singled out as being capable of spreading broadband services to the hinterlands. One of the other technologies comes in the form of metamaterial antennas made by Kymeta Corp that can track moving satellites more cheaply than traditional antennas. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Kymeta Corp already supplies its antennas to O3b.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.