Google to launch 180 satellites in $1bn plan to cover the unwired

Google may launch a constellation of satellites to deliver broadband to underserved parts of the world.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
O3b's satellites mounted to launch dispenser
O3b Networks' satellites mounted to launch dispenser. Image: O3b Networks

Google will spend north of $1bn to launch a fleet of 180 satellites to blanket unwired parts of earth with internet access, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While details of the project are subject to change, people familiar with Google's satellite plans told the paper the project will start with 180 small, high-capacity satellites that orbit lower than typical satellites.

The Google project is said to be being led by Greg Wyler, the founder of satellite startup O3b Networks; Google participated in a $1.2bn funding round in the company back in 2010.

O3b derives its name from the term "other 3 billion people" who lack broadband access either due to geography, political instability, or economics. With four satellites currently in orbit and four more set to launch in July, O3b currently provides backhaul to last-mile mobile network providers.

According to the report, Google's satellite plan could cost anywhere between $1bn and $3bn. The project is being led by Wyler with the support of up to 20 people, including O3b's chief technology officer Brian Holz, who reportedly joined Google this week.

News of Google's plans follow a report this week by Space News that L5/WorldVu — a Channel Islands company backed by Google and O3b Networks — had acquired Ku band spectrum that was initially allocated to now-defunct Skybridge, which had planned to launch 360 small satellites for a global broadband service.

The choice of Ku band spectrum bucks the trend for broadband satellites that have typically used Ka band for broadband, according to Tim Farrar, who heads up US-based satellite-consulting TMF Associates.

"This takes advantage of the FCC and international rulings secured by Skybridge in the late 1990s, which made over 3GHz of spectrum available for [non-geostationary satellite orbit] Ku-band systems, so long as they avoid interfering with satellites along the geostationary arc," Farrar wrote on the company's blog.

Farrar also told the Journal that the satellite constellation would probably replace Google's other satellite initiative, Project Loon, which relies on a network of hot air balloons at an altitude of 20km to deliver 3G-like speeds. The Google X Lab project launched its first Loon balloons in June last year.

Google's potentially serious move into satellites also follows Facebook’s efforts under internet.org and the Connectivity Lab, which are exploring the potential for drones, satellites, and lasers to connect the next billion people.

TMF Associates' Farrar has estimated it would take around five years to construct and launch 180 satellites, which could be done for a cost of $2bn to $3bn. If Google followed through with Skybridge's full 360 satellite plan, the project could be completed for around $5bn.

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