For his next trick, the man who shot a car to Mars is going to bring satellite video conferencing to every desert, jungle, and frozen hellscape on Earth.
Elon Musk and his SpaceX team created worldwide headlines after successfully launching the Falcon Heavy rocket and sending its cargo, Musk’s own Tesla, on a course for Mars. Two weeks later, and to much less fanfare, SpaceX successfully put another project into orbit, one that will have a more immediate and tangible impact on Earth.
The second launch was primarily a commercial one, carrying a Spanish satellite into orbit, but it also put into place the first two pieces of what will eventually become a space-based internet network that will bring make it possible for every rural town and remote village on the planet to get online.
With that connectivity comes the potential for everyone within reach of a smartphone to have a face-to-face video conference conversation with anyone, anywhere.
Starlink and Satellite Video Conferencing
Those first two pieces carried on the second mission were test-phase microsatellites. They will lay the foundation for a network of almost 12,000 satellites that will blanket the globe from low-Earth orbit. Musk has termed his nascent internet network Starlink and promised it will bring high-powered internet to those currently “least served.”
Starlink certainly has powerful promise. SpaceX has said that once the system is operational in 2022, it will provide a bandwidth of 1Gbps. That’s dozens of times faster than the current average broadband connection in the U.S., and on a par with what Alphabet has predicted its ground-based Google Fiber network would produce. Achieving such speeds via satellite would be a major upgrade over the current leader in space-based internet, HughesNet, which tops out at 25Mbps–again, much, much slower than Starlink.
The real appeal of SpaceX’s vision, however, lies in two other key elements.
Low Latency Video Calling Without On-Ground Infrastructure
The trouble with all things space-based is the huge distances between objects. A satellite transferring an internet signal up from and then back down to Earth is so far away that the message gets delayed. It’s the reason for the delay you’ll sometimes see during satellite interviews on TV.
In video conferencing terms, that’s a killer, causing audio and visual pauses that can ruin a conversation. This latency effect is the reason musicians can’t usually play together over a video call–the sound from one end arrives too late on the other end for them to synchronize.
The scale of the Starlink network–it will consist of twice as many satellites as have ever previously been launched–will send a signal 24 times faster than current satellite standards and reduce latency down to 25 millionths of a second. By comparison, ground-bound networks suffer latency of up to 20 milliseconds.
Those speeds would make satellite connections a viable option for even heavy data loads like video conferencing. That, in turn, means people in resource-poor countries could access the web without having to install expensive infrastructure like underground cables and towering antennas.
They won’t even need the specialized satellite receivers currently in use in remote areas. Your smartphone is already in constant contact with the satellites whizzing around above us…and there are plenty of smartphones around.
Satellite Internet for Every Village
India is currently undergoing a massive infrastructure program to modernize its internet coverage and make it available to rural and remote populations. If SpaceX’s Starlink system proves a success, all that work may become superfluous. As it stands, India’s huge population has made it the world’s second-largest smartphone market. Through Elon Musk’s plan, those people will potentially have enough satellite internet power to have a video call with anyone just using their phone.
And–at least in our opinion here at VC Daily–that’s an enormous power to possess. It means you carry access to a face-to-face meeting with a doctor, lawyer, customer, business partner, friend, or family member wherever you go. That kind of connectivity and empowerment is what the initial dreams of a democratic internet were built upon.
It makes anyone with a phone a citizen journalist, capable of speaking to the press from a decimated neighborhood or the bleakest refugee camp. It means better health options for rural populations currently faced with long journeys to medical experts–something more and more areas of our country are embracing. It means bringing high-quality communication options to areas of the planet deemed too difficult to connect to ground-based internet cables. It means connecting people in third-world countries with the rest of the globe’s digital society and letting them speak in person.
Maybe these are grand visions, but how else do you react when a guy who can send his own car to Mars says he’s going to cover the world in high-speed internet from space