Google is pinning its hopes for cheap, space-based Internet on Elon Musk. But can he deliver?
SpaceX confirmed Tuesday that it had raised $1 billion from Google and Fidelity — part of a larger effort by Google to spread the Internet to developing countries and crack open those markets. SpaceX is a natural choice for a partnership: Both it and Google share a fondness for "moonshot" projects and have explored how to provide Internet access to poor and rural areas. In November, Musk suggested that SpaceX was working on the idea; last week, the billionaire investor hosted a private event in Seattle to launch an office dedicated to satellite Internet.
SpaceX is still in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations. Announcement in 2 to 3 months.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 11, 2014
Many companies are only just getting started on delivering Internet by other means. Facebook dreams of using drones and satellites to create a vast access network. Google last year bought a drone manufacturer, Titan Aerospace, as part of its research.
There are two main ways of getting data to and from space: radio waves and lasers. Lasers represent the cutting edge of connectivity research: They're incredibly accurate — important if you're beaming data from orbit — and can transfer information at speeds approaching the best that terrestrial Internet has to offer. A 2013 laser Internet test by NASA achieved download speeds (from the moon!) of 622 megabits per second — about 62 times faster than what the average U.S. household gets.
Unfortunately, laser beams get scattered by things like clouds, meaning they're useless for delivering information in bad weather. So the backup for companies like Facebook is to use a tried-and-true technology: radio waves, or the same airwave spectrum that carries your cellphone calls and smartphone data.
Here's the problem for SpaceX, according to The Information: It doesn't have a license to use the spectrum it would need to actually beam the Internet down to the masses. If it can't get the spectrum, and if the laser option doesn't pan out, SpaceX will have a tough time developing a sufficiently robust satellite network. But if can secure some spectrum rights, SpaceX could combine its manufacturing prowess and its space know-how in ways that Google could only dream of. And that's why Google appears so bullish on SpaceX right now.
A spokesperson for Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A SpaceX spokesperson declined to comment.