The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is planning to spend more than $1 billion on satellites that will offer Internet access worldwide from space. The publication’s sources say that Google will begin with 180 small satellites that will orbit the Earth at a lower altitude than most other craft, before possibly expanding the fleet in the future.
Google has been hiring new staff from satellite companies in an effort to get its space Internet project off the ground. The project is reportedly being run by Greg Wyler, who founded satellite startup O3b Networks. O3b, in which Google has invested, has been experimenting with 1,500-pound satellites, but people familiar with the project say the devices Google intends to use will weigh less than 250 pounds. The WSJ’s sources say the costs for the venture could top $3 billion as Google makes tweaks to the network and revises the number of satellites it needs to offer Internet in unconnected parts of the world.
A number of tech companies are exploring ways for it to increase broadband coverage to parts of the planet that lack Internet infrastructure. Google’s Project Loon uses balloons to act as high-altitude Internet service providers, and in April, it acquired Titan Aerospace, a company building solar-powered drones that can beam Internet signals from the sky. Facebook said it was experimenting with a similar method in March, confirming that it was building a squadron of drones that could fly autonomously at 65,000 feet for months at a time using solar cells.
Google’s reported plans to roll out a fleet of satellites likely won’t make its efforts with drones or balloons obsolete. Tim Farrar, a consultant who worked for a company that tried to offer satellite-based Internet access in the 1990s before its $9 billion project was halted, told the WSJ that the technologies complemented each other and that drones and satellites could combine to achieve Google’s aim of offering signals in all corners of the world.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, a Google spokesperson suggested the company’s efforts were altruistic. “Internet connectivity significantly improves people’s lives. Yet two-thirds of the world have no access at all.” But there’s also a financial reason to offer these two-thirds a reliable way to get online. If at least one of the methods — balloon, drone or satellite — can successfully offer high-speed Internet to underserved parts of the world, then Google will also be in a position to offer its products and services to vast new markets.