Last week on Capitol Hill, SpaceX told a Senate committee about its plans to build a massive satellite constellation to provide broadband services around the globe. At stake for SpaceX are potential billions in revenue. Meanwhile, rumors continue on Apple jumping into space by funding Boeing's proposed satellite network.
SpaceX plans to put an initial 4,425 satellites distributed across 83 orbital planes – think slices – at altitudes between roughly 1,100 kilometers to 1,300 kilometers above the earth, according to testimony given by Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology.
The satellites will deliver broadband using Ka- and Ku-band radio frequencies and move data among each other using laser links in a mesh network. Since the satellites will be much closer to the earth than geosynchronous communications satellites at 36,000 kilometers in the sky, latency will be much lower and won't have the delays and lag associated with traditional satellite services. A second-generation network would add an additional 7,500 lower flying satellites delivering services in the V-band to provide more capacity and reduce latency in highly-populated areas.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said the low-orbiting satellite network would even be faster than traditional fiber-based networks because laser signals would be traveling in straight lines through empty space, rather than slower by following a wandering path through glass cables and multiple routers.
SpaceX will launch a first pathfinder satellite before the end of the year and a second one early in 2018. Once the technology has been successfully demonstrated, SpaceX plans to start launch satellites in mass starting in 2019 with the full 4,425 constellation to be finished by 2024. By 2025, various estimates say the network could be generating tens of billions – yes, billions – of dollars per year, generating enough cash to fund building a fleet of spaceships to colonize Mars.
How close is the SpaceX network to becoming reality? Having successfully demonstrated the ability to re-use the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket – the most expensive part of its launch system – SpaceX should have a fleet of “flight-proven” first stage hardware to put to work. It will need to ramp up flight operations from a launch of every two weeks in 2017 to performing multiple flights per week at some point. The math is simple – 4400 satellites in orbit, five years to put the full network in orbit, translating to an average of 880 satellites per year, or about 88 satellites per month, with two months worked in for paying customers, such as the U.S. government and commercial satellite operators. That would be around 22 SpaceX satellites launched per week, so call it around two to three launches per week, carrying up eight to 12 satellites into orbit at a time.
If increasing flight rates from twice a month to two to three times a week isn’t enough of a challenge for SpaceX, the other “long pole” is a factory dedicated to crank out satellites in the quantities necessary. Consider OneWeb, planning to orbit a mere 900 satellites in total for its satellite broadband cloud, is spending $85 million for a new factory next to Cape Canaveral that will crank out up to three satellites a day. SpaceX will need its own dedicated manufacturing facility operating at similar to or faster production rates to meet its satellite needs. Fortunately, SpaceX can tap into the experience of its own rocket production as well as potentially that of Musk-owned Tesla, which has built facilities to build cars and lithium ion batteries.
But SpaceX isn't alone in looking to the sky for profits. Apple has hired two of Google's satellite people, reports Bloomberg. There have been long standing rumors this year that Apple is funding Boeing's effort to build a large broadband satellite constellation. In 2016, Boeing applied for a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to build an initial network of 1,396 satellites operating in the V-band spectrum, growing the network to 2,956 satellites over time.
Apple has more cash than common sense these days, sitting on a Smaug-like hoard of nearly $257 billion as of a couple weeks ago. While Apple shareholders love fat dividends, the company hasn't had a “Next Great Thing” in quite a while, fumbling about with projects in autonomous cars and a rumored TV set/over-the-top streaming network, while failing to do simple things like regularly update its laptop and desktop lines. Boeing has the core expertise in communications satellite technology, but would have to translate it into a mass production model.
Could an Apple/Boeing collaboration work? It's an intriguing combination, but both companies will have to embrace a fast-moving ethos akin to Apple's glory days, rather than the plodding pace Apple runs at today.