Elon Musk plans satellite network

After shaking up the automotive world with his electric car venture, entrepreneur Elon Musk has set his sights skywards in a bid to bring the internet to the billions who still lack access.

Musk is working on an embryonic $1bn plan to launch 700 satellites that are less than half the size of the smallest communications models currently in use.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the owner of electric carmaker Tesla is working with Greg Wyler, a satellite industry veteran and former Google executive, whose company, WorldVu Satellites, owns a considerable amount of radio spectrum.

Musk’s other venture, SpaceX, could be used to launch the satellites into orbit. The pair are considering building a factory in Florida or Colorado to manufacture the 110kg satellites. Two people familiar with the matter said WorldVu hoped to make the satellites for under $1m each – considerably less than they are currently made for.

Wyler had been working with the Google-backed startup O3b Networks, and in June it was reported that the search giant planned to spend $1bn on 180 small, high-capacity satellites.

The first four satellites launched by O3b were beset by technical problems, and Wyler quit Google after a year to join forces with Musk. Wyler has left O3b but remained a significant shareholder, according to the Journal. Google declined to comment.

The venture would face considerable technical and regulatory hurdles, and SpaceX may not be ready to launch satellites until close to the end of this decade. O3b could face losing the rights to its radio spectrum by then.

Satellite ventures are notoriously expensive. About 15 years ago the telecommunications group Iridium spent $5bn putting 66 satellites into orbit before collapsing into bankruptcy. The company aimed to create a telecommunications system that would allow users of handheld phones to make calls from anywhere on earth. However, just 55,000 customers were willing to spend $3,000 for a phone and pay $7 a minute for calls and a US judge ordered the firm wound up.

Other, less expensive ways of bringing internet access to remote areas are being considered. Facebook has a team working on solar-powered drones that would fly at a height of 20,000 metres – around the same height that Google has proposed placing balloons with a similar aim.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Chris Johnston, for theguardian.com on Saturday 8th November 2014 17.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010