Imagine a world where Internet access is cheap, fast and operates as the ultimate digital freeway, with no limitations on the types of content you use.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk is well on his way toward changing our notions of space travel and what kinds of cars we drive. And now, the high-profile entrepreneur says he wants to change the way we access the Internet.
Details are still scarce, but Musk himself confirmed that his company SpaceX wants to launch hundreds of small satellites into space that would offer low-cost and high-speed Internet access to people around the world.
If successful, the plan might just end up being more influential than any of his other headline generating ventures. After all, online connectivity is at the core of virtually every business and non-profit venture in today’s world and is only becoming more essential by the day. However, Musk says a formal announcement is still “a few months away” and disputed initial details of the project that were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
As of this writing, the federal government is in the middle of an ongoing dialogue with corporate communications giants over how to regulate the Internet. Major service providers want the authority to sell Internet access at higher prices for faster service and to “throttle” access to certain services like streaming video. Proponents of net neutrality say this throttling is tantamount to censorship and would stifle creative, political and economic expression. President Obama agrees and recently directed the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet as a public utility, much like how we treat electricity and water access.
Back in 2010, the FCC announced the National Broadband Plan to provide high-speed Internet access to every part of the country but we still have a long way to go. A 2013 study by found the U.S. ranks 31 in worldwide download speeds. As GeekWire points out, a big obstacle for nations like the U.S. is in building a broadband infrastructure across a massive physical landscape. Nations like South Korea that rank amongst the top in Internet speeds are at an inherent advantages because their populations are largely urban and spread out over much smaller borders.
But if SpaceX and other efforts from Facebook and Google are successful, the debate over net neutrality might become less significant. That’s because Musk says the SpaceX venture would not only offer low-cost Internet access but that they would refuse to throttle access for users. What he is essentially saying is that if the government will not act to ensure net neutrality, then SpaceX will do its own part to offer people an alternative to potentially restrictive corporate competitors.
Similarly proposed efforts from Facebook and Google have generated plenty of attention. For its part, Google wants to launch a fleet of balloons that would offer free Internet access to areas with limited or no broadband connectivity. Meanwhile, Facebook says they will launch a fleet of giant drones that will stay permanently in flight to offer people online connections. So far, SpaceX is the first company that says it will go directly into space to accomplish their goals. Again, very little of this information has been confirmed but some sources say they expect SpaceX to use its fleet of Falcon 9 rockets to launch the satellites into space.
As to the satellites themselves, it’s rumored that Musk will partner with WorldVu Satellites founder Greg Wyler, himself a former Google executive. A fleet of around 640 satellites would be launched into orbit, weighing about half that of typical satellites and produced for less than $1 million each. That would be nearly double the number of the current largest fleet of satellites in orbit around the Earth, according to the Wall Street Journal. The entire project is estimated to cost around $1.5 billion and would be entirely funded through venture capital raised by Musk, Wyler and their respective partnerships.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait a few months to see exactly what SpaceX’s plan is and if Musk himself will even be directly involved. But when you look at the combined efforts of tech giants like Facebook and Google, it’s clear that major stakeholders have a vested interest in ensuring that everyone has access to fast and unfiltered online access. Whether you’re an aspiring medical aid worker, a entrepreneur with a great idea for an app, or just your everyday Web surfer, it seems that Internet access is moving closer and closer to being treated as a public utility rather than a restricted privilege for the cultural and economic elite.
Top photo: The SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo craft pictured during a mission in September 2014. (Photo courtesy of SpaceX)