Google Backs Communications Venture to Launch 360 Satellites

By Doug Mohney June 02, 2014

Rumors have been floating around for a while of Google backing a satellite company that would send a whopping number of small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO). The rumors are true, according to Space News, with a planned 360 -- yes, three hundred sixty -- satellites. It is the latest move by Google to effectively fund its own private space program.

WorldVu Satellites Ltd, doing business as L5 with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), has secured Ku-band spectrum once allocated to SkyBridge. Based out of the Channel Islands, WorldVu would start operations in late 2019. Satellites would be operated in orbits of 800 to 950 kilometers above the earth, with the company having to get something into orbit between late 2019 and mid-2020.

The Ku-band network would provide low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband access to unserved and underserved regions of the world. No hints were given as to how much speed or how many users could be supported within a particular area, but there are at least two or three problems facing the WorldVu L5 network.

First, the L5 network and ground users would have to cope with the constant movement of 360 satellites around the Earth, so there would be a lot of non-trivial switching and passing along data streams. The Iridium network, with 66 active satellites at an orbit of 780 kilometers, has proven you can do an LEO "cloud" of satellites to deliver voice and data services. L5 is going to have more than four times that number of satellites running around.

Since L5 will operate in Ku band, it will have to work to prevent interference with higher orbiting geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellites fixed overhead. Ku-band GEO satellites deliver broadband, broadcast video, and phone service across the globe, so having a bunch of little Ku-band broadcasting satellites speeding through a Ku service beam could cause interference problems if WorldVu isn't careful.

Finally, I'm not sure if anyone has sat down and fully assessed the impact of throwing 360 new satellites into orbit. There are 1071 operational satellites in earth orbit, according to a Universe Today piece in 2013. Around half of those are in low earth orbit, so WorldVu wouldn't quite double the number of satellites in LEO, but it would be non-trivial.

WorldVu isn't the first Google satellite deal by any stretch of the imagination. The company is reportedly working on buying Skybox Imaging, a company in the process of launching a constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites.  Google also has backed O3b Networks, a Ka-band satellite provider providing high-speed services to telecom companies, and is backing the Lunar X PRIZE for the first commercial lunar lander.

It all adds up to Google supporting a large and diverse space portfolio on a scale that venture capitalists might be challenged to match. 

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

Contributing Editor

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