Is Google Planning Son of Teledesic?

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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.

  • windbourne

    Both Delta and Atlas were premised on large number of private launches, which was expected from the likes of Teledesic. Obviously, that fell apart.
    Now, Google has been installing fiber into a few places (hopefully, they will do more).
    One thing that I can see them doing is, going after close communities, but using the sat to connect these together, until they are allowed to get into major fiber lines. With this approach, they could go to my Highlands Ranch community, or even a smaller one like Castle Pines, CO, and run fiber to the homes slowly, while the end points are able to pick up 100 MG connections to the net, along with TV for their standard $120/month.

  • Richard Johnson

    They should use Space Tango for test and integration to ensure success.

    http://www.spacetango.com/

  • Brad Arnold

    First, I would like to note that Google’s strategy appears poised to give it the power of a nation state. That can’t be good to be a rival of countries and their national security interests. Second, Google’s strategy will also (if it works, and isn’t tworted) create a synergy that could significantly speed up mankind’s ability to survive in a Darwinian universe. A world-wide wifi bubble, super AI, and a complete set of robotic technology, plus longevity treatments. All they need is time, the most valuable commodity.

    If they are reading this: Google get into the virtual currency market. I won’t waste your time by making specific suggestions, but if you control a (virtual) currency [not sink or swim with it, but control it], you’ve taken a significant step toward what you are trying to accomplish.

  • Douglas Messier

    It would provide telecom services to Africa and some of the remotest places on the planet without the need to wire up the places. And it could allow anyone in any country to access any online content without authoritarian governments blocking it. Plus the power it gives to Google to be able to analyze user activity, consumer patterns, and online searches from people around the world. This could be extremely disruptive.

  • Google (led primarily by Vinton Cerf) has been working on an Interplanetary Internet for many years now. To assume any upcoming launches would be focused (only) on the Earth is very short-sighted and irrational. With a 300 year business plan in its infancy; better to prepare a foundation for wiring up the solar system.

  • Tonya

    I usually assume satellites place in Earth orbit are intended for planet Earth.

  • RustyShackleford1911

    This would be as the Mongul hordes to the Great Firewall of China. “Can’t stop the signal Mal!” Biggest Loser: China. Biggest Winner: SpaceX. Because this would give his RLVs ample work to become mature and put much coin in the bank as a down-payment on his MCT dreams.

  • Faraz

    Hi, you said:
    “A company could probably launch twice as many satellites as Teledesic originally planned for much less than $9 billion.”
    It make sense, but is there any reference for that?!