Is Google Planning Son of Teledesic?

A P3 Navy aircraft with Hangar One at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.  (Copyright 2008: Douglas Messier)
A P3 Navy aircraft with Hangar One at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. (Copyright 2008: Douglas Messier)

Clark Lindsey over at New Space Watch  reports on the following rumor from Silicon Valley:

NSG Analysts have heard from several usually reliable industry sources that a major company, possibly “Google or Facebook,” could be announcing the launch of a very large constellation of satellites in the near future.

“Very large constellation” is defined as up to 1,600 small satellites. Based on information Parabolic Arc has received, the story seems to be true. Google appears to be pursuing a plan to provide global broadband services that is similar to a failed attempt by a company called Teledesic.

Why Google? Well, Facebook hasn’t shown any interest in advanced satellites or space technologies. Mark Zuckerberg’s company has been primarily focused on providing an information sharing platform on which it can sell ads and mine user data for profit. It’s not clear how a global broadband network would fit into the company’s plans.

Google, on the other hand, has shown a great interest in space through the Google Lunar X Prize and other activities. One of its subsidiaries, Planetary Ventures, has been selected to lease Moffett Field, a federal airfield now managed by NASA Ames Research Center. Part of the lease involves putting a new covering on the giant Hangar One airship structure. The San Jose Mercury News reported last  week:

If you were Google, what would you do with a 350,000-square-foot hangar that was originally built to house helium airships for the U.S. Navy?

How about using its cavernous interior for building and testing new robots, planetary rovers and other space or aviation technology?

While the company is best known for its Internet search engine, software and other online services, Google’s founders and several top executives also have a well-documented interest in robots, high-altitude balloons, aviation and space exploration.

In recent months, Google has confirmed buying eight small robotics companies for a mysterious new division headed by its former Android software chief, Andy Rubin. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin already own a fleet of jets now parked at Moffett Field. And Page, the company’s CEO, has reportedly invested in a separate company that hopes to mine asteroids for precious metals.

Google is already experimenting with providing global communications services. The company recently launched Project Loon, which is designed to provide global Internet services via a network of high-altitude balloons. The company’s website describes both the enormous demand for communications services worldwide and the capabilities of the Loon network.

Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.

Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G. For balloon-to-balloon and balloon-to-ground communications, the balloons use antennas equipped with specialized radio frequency technology. Project Loon currently uses ISM bands (specifically 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands) that are available for anyone to use.

So, there are 4.4 billion people in need of communications services worldwide that could conceivably be served by Project Loon and a constellation of low-Earth orbit broadband satellites. That’s an enormous market.

This would not be the first attempt to develop a large satellite constellation for broadband communications. The most ambitious was a venture called Teledesic led by telecommunications entrepreneur Craig McCaw and backed by Microsoft, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Wikipedia has the follow synopsis of the company’s plans and fate:

Teledesic was a company founded in the 1990s to build a commercial broadband satellite constellation for Internet services. Using low-earth orbiting satellites small antennas could be used to provide uplinks of as much as 100 Mbit/second and downlinks of up to 720 Mbit/second. The original 1995 proposal was extremely ambitious, costing over US$9 billion and originally planning 840 active satellites with in-orbit spares at an altitude of 700 km. In 1997 the scheme was scaled back to 288 active satellites at 1400 km and was later scaled back further in complexity and number of satellites as the projected market demand continued to decrease.

The commercial failure of the similar Iridium and Globalstar ventures (composed of 66 and 48 operational satellites, respectively) and other systems, along with bankruptcy protection filings, were primary factors in halting the project, and Teledesic officially suspended its satellite construction work on October 1, 2002.

Twelve years later, conditions are more favorable for developing a large satellite broadband network. Demand has increased, small satellite capabilities have vastly improved, satellite receiving technology has shrunk, and launch costs are coming down. A company could probably launch twice as many satellites as Teledesic originally planned for much less than $9 billion.

Like Facebook, Google also has successfully monetized the mining of user information. A global broadband network would give the company enormous amount of data to mine and drive traffic to its search engine, YouTube and other services.