Are Tiny Internet Satellites Twinkling in Musk’s Eyes?

Elon Musk may send a lot of small satellites into orbit to help bring a truly global Internet to fruition. Others -- notably Google and Facebook -- have their own ambitious plans for achieving worldwide connectivity. However, "Musk tends to get things done," noted tech analyst Rob Enderle, and the result could be "vastly better and more affordable worldwide communications."

Elon Musk, CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla Motors, soon may be venturing into new territory: the Internet satellite sector.

Musk is working with ex-Googler Greg Wyler, founder of WorldVu Satellites, on a US$1 billion project to develop relatively small and inexpensive models that can be used to provide Internet access around the globe, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Some 700 diminutive satellites reportedly are part of the pair’s plans. Currently, the largest fleet of satellites is roughly a tenth of that number.

Weighing in at less than 250 pounds each, they’d be about half the size of the smallest satellites used commercially today for communication.

Initial talks already have been held with state officials in Florida and Colorado about locating a factory to build the satellites, which likely would be launched by SpaceX, WSJ reported.

Loons and Balloons and Drones, Oh My!

Musk’s involvement in the satellite venture is not yet certain, and the project itself is still in the very early stages, WSJ sources reportedly cautioned.

If it does move forward, however, it will come on the heels of other attempts to globalize Internet access.

Google last year launched Project Loon, an effort to accomplish much the same thing using superpressure balloons.

Facebook has teamed up with Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera and other tech leaders to launch, which has been working on plans involving drones, satellites, aircraft and lasers.

Google earlier this year outbid Facebook for Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that could be used for Internet access delivery.

The Musk Factor

Nevertheless, “Musk tends to get things done, and given he has a company that has been successful launching satellites into space and he has learned to manufacture complex things in volume — Tesla — he has a huge advantage over Google,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group.

“Personally, I think more thought needs to go into what happens when you put a lot more stuff in orbit, as the amount of junk up there is becoming a big safety problem,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld.

“Having said that, the result of this effort could be vastly better and more affordable worldwide communications connecting people more effectively … than ever before,” he added.

“You do kind of wonder how regimes that actively attempt to restrict their citizens from being informed will react — might they try to shoot the satellites down, for instance?” Enderle mused.

In any case, “in the end, I doubt there is anyone else, outside of a government, that could pull this off,” he said.

A Lot of ‘Ifs’

Musk’s venture appears “largely speculative,” noted Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT.

“If they can come up with a workable, durable design that can be manufactured at the planned cost, the venture could successfully get off the ground — no pun intended,” he told TechNewsWorld. “However, that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ for a single project to support.”

In its favor, “Musk has revolutionized the auto and space flight industries by casting aside conventional wisdom and charting a new, highly individual course,” King pointed out. “If he can apply that same approach to this effort, he could fundamentally reshape satellite communications and global Internet access.”

Gotta Love Him

Whether or not the satellite project moves ahead, “you’ve got to love Elon Musk,” telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan told TechNewsWorld.

“He’s in the idea and invention business,” Kagan observed. “He’s got boundless energy and he throws plenty of new ideas against the wall. Whatever sticks, he builds.”

Katherine Noyes has been reporting on business and technology for decades. You can find her on Twitter and Google+.

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