The Internet is so pivotal to commerce and communication that access is starting to be considered a human right. Several tech giants are now setting out with the noble agenda to provide every human on earth with the possibility of going online and change their lives and communities. Of course there are big bucks to be made as well, and the business arena has recently become so charged that the competition has been dubbed “The New Space Race”.
We will start by introducing the most unknown player in this competition. As you probably guessed it is neither Space X’s Elon Musk nor Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg (although we will get to them later), but a man named Greg Wyler. This serial entrepreneur, and former Google executive, is on a mission to connect the world. Wyler has appeared frequently in the tech press lately for several reasons, however most notably for launching his new venture OneWeb – a company aspiring to bring Internet access to everyone on earth by the use of several hundreds of low-orbit satellites. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Whyler says that he hopes that the spectrum and the number of satellites will allow the service to deliver a lot of data, while the low orbit will make the service faster than other satellite-based offerings. Below is a video of the entrepreneur and his project, by Bloomberg Business:
As to date, companies such as Google and Facebook have received a lot of attention for their philanthropic plans to bring the Internet to the developing world, although these giants have been launching their projects with a different altitude in mind. Facebook, with its Internet.org initiative, aims to bring internet access to the two-thirds of the world’s population that do not currently have access by using drones, which may or may not be solar-powered. According to NewMag, Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg’s goal is to attract new users, but he believes a constellation of drones and satellites will enable him first to provide needed internet access to the 6 billion people not yet using his service. Similarly, Google has its Loon project which applies a network of balloons designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.
The balloons and drones have both advantages and disadvantages when compared to satellites. Firstly, these solutions will beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks, which might sound reasonable at a first look. However, Gizmodo reports that the projects using satellites for Internet distribution would provide fiber-like speeds to the dwellers down on the surface. The drones and balloons have the advantage of being cheaper, but they also might fall back down to earth during the wrong circumstances or due to technical error. Thus, they need maintenance every once in a while (however, whereas the balloons will need to come down every 100 days the Facebook drones might be in the air for several years). This is not merely a disadvantage though, since the units can actually be repaired and serviced, whereas satellites would probably be irreparable, list and useless if they got damaged or something went wrong with the electronics. In any case, what truly speaks for a satellite solution is, because of the high altitude of operations, it would require far less units to cover the whole surface of our planet.
However, there is not only healthy competition going on between different technologies but also between OneWeb and another major player attempting a satellite based solution. According to Information Space, Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX, the private spacecraft venture) was actually working together with OneWeb’s Greg Wyler as late as a few months back. Now their collective effort has been split into two similar battling satellite initiatives. As if this was not intricate enough, two major giants recently chose to back each entrepreneur. Fortune reports that Google and Fidelity Investments have made a $1 billion investment in the SpaceX-project whereas SpaceX’s largest rival, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has come to back the Greg Wyler’s initiative.
Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured a huge article regarding the competition, and judging by the quotes from Elon Musk and Richard Branson the rivalry seems quite fierce. As Musk tells the reporter:
“We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg [Whyler] wants, I think there should be two competing systems.”
Whereas Branson states:
“I don’t think Elon [Musk] can do a competing thing, if Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us.”
Judging from the investment costs, Musk might not be lying when he says that his project is more sophisticated, but such aspirations also comes with a downside. Wired writes that the OneWeb project will likely cost $2 billion, which substantially less than Elon Musk’s $10 billion plan to launch his own system of satellites. Also, according to Ars Technica, OneWeb’s advantage is that it already secured the rights to a block of radio spectrum that it will use for Internet service through the International Telecommunication Union. Whoever wins the race, and whatever underlying capitalistic incentives might be present, the currently occurring event is probably going to bring some serious flip-sides. As Greg Wyler says in the final sentence of the Businessweek interview, “this second Internet, it will be there for everybody”.