If you don't connect the unconnected, Google will

19 Jun 2014

First it was balloons. Then it was drones. Now Google is looking at LEOsats to connect the unconnected.

That’s according to a report from the Wall Street Journal late last month, which claimed Google plans to launch a constellation of low-orbit satellites that will deliver broadband connectivity to underserved areas. Details are sketchy - and Google hasn’t confirmed or denied any of this - but the project is reportedly expected to cost up to $3 billion, depending on the size of the satellites and how many Google launches. According to the WSJ, Google is aiming for a constellation of 360 LEOsats - 180 in the first phase, and the rest later.

Inevitably, the news is drawing comparisons to past LEOsat flops - particularly Teledesic, which was data-focused and counted Microsoft among its backers, but was ultimately abandoned in 2002. According to TMF Associates (founded by Tim Farrar, who was a consultant to Teledesic), Teledesic’s main hurdle was the lack of a cost-effective terminal antenna. LEOsats require an antenna that can track them as they move across the sky, and tracking dishes were just too expensive. However, a company called Kymeta is currently working on new flat panel antennas that could bring terminal costs down. O3b is reportedly planning to use them in the next couple of years, and if they work as advertised, the technology may be mature enough by the time Google is ready to start launching its satellites.

Could it work? Who knows? But it’s interesting that Google is actively sinking money into this - especially when you remember that satellite isn’t the only option Google is exploring. It’s also looking at solar-powered drones and high-altitude balloons, as well as “super Wi-Fi” powered by white-space spectrum, and - of course - FTTH.

Apart from the fiber, these projects are driven by Google’s desire to “connect the unconnected” around the world. Facebook is pursuing similar goals with its own drone project. And the motivation for both companies is well understood - they want more people online using Facebook and Google services.

But there’s an underlying message here for the telecoms space as well - “if you don’t connect them, we will.”

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