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Google To Spend $1 Billion On Fleet of Satellites 170

Posted by samzenpus
from the google-sky dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Google is planning to spend over $1 billion on a fleet of satellites to extend Internet access to unwired regions around the world. 'The projected price ranges from about $1 billion to more than $3 billion, the people familiar with the project said, depending on the network's final design and a later phase that could double the number of satellites. Based on past satellite ventures, costs could rise. Google's project is the latest effort by a Silicon Valley company to extend Internet coverage from the sky to help its business on the ground. Google and Facebook Inc. are counting on new Internet users in underserved regions to boost revenue, and ultimately, earnings. "Google and Facebook are trying to figure out ways of reaching populations that thus far have been unreachable," said Susan Irwin, president of Irwin Communications Inc., a satellite-communications research firm. "Wired connectivity only goes so far and wireless cellular networks reach small areas. Satellites can gain much broader access."'"
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Google To Spend $1 Billion On Fleet of Satellites

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  • It's also a neat way to boost the sale of satellite transmission and receiving equipment. Will individuals need the equipment, or will an ISP of sorts swoop in monopolize the communication with the satellite?
    • ...communication with the satellite?

      *The satellite that serves a given area.

      • by AlecC (512609)

        Very unlikely to be in geosynchronous orbit, which is a long way away - about 20, 000 miles compared to Low Earth Orbit at 120 miles or so. Inverse square law means that both ends would need much more power. Handing from one station to another on the fly is a solved problem.

    • The article says "180 small, high-capacity satellites orbiting the earth at lower altitudes than traditional satellites." For lower altitude (LEO) satellites, the same satellite doesn't stay fixed over the same area. As far as end users are concerned, you could probably look at Google's fiber optic deployments to see how it is with middle men getting between end users and Google's network hardware.
    • Re:Interesting... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Hadlock (143607) on Monday June 02, 2014 @12:53PM (#47147537) Homepage Journal

      Google just bought Titan Aerospace, which builds and sells solar powered airplanes that can fly for 5 years straight. In theory they would intercept the satellite transmission and then beam the signal down to "the last mile", or in this case last 40,000 ft.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:28AM (#47146563)

    Only when they complete some sort of "giant data laser" will people wise up, maybe.

  • 180 satellites... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Thagg (9904) <thadbeier@gmail.com> on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:30AM (#47146575) Journal

    Kind of like a social network of satellites :)

    Seriously, this makes a lot of sense. At the low altitudes that these will fly, the power necessary to reach the satellites will be much lower than geosynchronous or even Iridium satellites. Mass producing small satellites probably is cheaper than building a few big ones, as well.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044)

      What a great way to build an global sigint platform. I am sure that those sats could pick up any radar signal transmitted on Earth in real time.

      • by Dins (2538550)
        Meh, I'm sure the NSA already has that. Why not let Google in on the "fun".......
        • by LWATCDR (28044)

          I figured that the Iridium and GPS constellations had some Sigint functions paying some cash to add a sigint receiver to each bird should not be that expensive. Even if you limit to strong emitters around the XBand you should a large number of SAM, AWACS, and AI radars.

          • by Teancum (67324)

            Considering that the DOD is the largest customer for Iridium, I doubt that Sigint stuff would get much of a take for the U.S. government (except for internal investigations). Do you really think they are at that level of paranoia?

    • Re:180 satellites... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mmell (832646) <mmell@hotmail.com> on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:37AM (#47146647)
      They'd better be cheaply launchable as well. LEO satellites don't live in stable orbits. They have a definite, limited lifespan before they deorbit, as Earth's atmosphere doesn't "end here" - it just gets thinner and thinner as you climb (and no - it's not an asymptotic function of altitude. There is definitely a point where Earth's atmosphere ends, but it's above the orbit of LEO satellites).
      • by Baloroth (2370816)

        I can't find an exact altitude for these satellites, but O3b (whom Google is working with on this project) is putting satellites in orbits 5,000 miles above Earth, which is definitely not LEO. That's lower than conventional geosynchronous communications satellites (which sit ~22,000 above Earth), but well above the low-Earth orbit cutoff (which is roughly 1,000 miles and below). At 5,000 miles, the atmosphere is thin enough to be considered non-existent. Now, Google might be looking at lower orbits for thes

        • by Hodr (219920)

          Also of note, O3b is seeing 500Mbit forward link data rates on a 1.3 meter dish and getting 150ms round trip delay on their MEO satellites (vs. 500+MS) on GEO.

          The caveat is that you need either an expensive tracking antenna or two regular antenna to keep from breaking signal as you negotiate satellites moving into and out of your window.

      • Based on past satellite ventures, costs could rise.

        Based on recent developments, costs could plummet. IMHO, the only reason Google is even talking about this now is because SpaceX recently flew a (theoretically) reusable first stage. Of course, "practical" reusability is still in the works, but Musk is tight with the gurus of Google, and it doesn't cost them much in the short run to flog their "visionary" quest to bring broadband to the masses. And if Musk succeeds with reusability (which seems likely) they'll be able to deploy this constellation at a fract

    • I'd really like to know what the real business plan is. Are they really after the part of the world's population that is currently unreachable, or is it a parallel effort to Google Fiber where they're hoping to get access to a greater percentage of the first world's internet traffic so they can monetize it?

      My money's on the latter.

    • Also, you will have less latency than if they were in geosynchronous orbit because they are closer. Which is a significant factor if people want to use them for real time communication.
    • An ad company: 180 / 6 = 30 sats per letter ; we'll see soon in the sky "Google" in big letters..
    • by sessamoid (165542)

      Kind of like a social network of satellites :)

      It does. They should give it a name, "Skynet" or something like that.

    • by timeOday (582209)

      At the low altitudes that these will fly, the power necessary to reach the satellites will be much lower than geosynchronous or even Iridium satellites.

      Maybe dumb questions, but is there a limit to how low-power a device could be and still reach a satellite, if the satellite had a powerful antenna (akin to a radio telescope) to pick it up? Granted you'd need a large number of such antenna to cover the earth since they'd be highly directional.

      Second, is there a way to make a directional antenna small en

      • The article says "Antennas developed by companies including Kymeta Corp. have no moving parts and are controlled by software, which reduces manufacturing and maintenance costs." Since the satellites are moving and the antennas have not moving parts, I'm not sure how highly directional they would be. I have a couple of Iridium antennas, and they're certainly omnidirectional.
        • by Hodr (219920)

          The antennas are still directional. They use phased arrays to perform beam steering. No "moving" parts and a low profile are the plus, but they are relatively low gain for the surface area and power used.

      • Yes, it is relatively easy. You use a phased array for beam steering / directional sensitivity. If you put something the size of Aricebo in orbit, you could presumably directly read the electrical signals of a human brain. And the electrical activity at the rear of the brain can be directly translated to what is being heard. So no phone required at all, at least for the uplink!

        The same thing is possible for the downlink too, but there may be slight side effects. (Think "This is your brain in a microwav

    • At the low altitudes that these will fly, the power necessary to reach the satellites will be much lower than geosynchronous or even Iridium satellites.

      The link budget calculations have too many other things to say how important that is without looking at the other factors, especially when you consider that battery power, not Tx power, is what matters. Iridium satellites sit at 780km, but I haven't found any info about the Google proposal. Also, Iridium satellites run L-band (1-2GHz) but Google's are Ku-band (12-18GHz). Power amps are much less efficient at Ku, and there is greater rain fade. 2dB may not sound like much at first, but it means you need 43%

  • by Dega704 (1454673) on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:30AM (#47146579)
    Said Elon Musk, perking up.
  • by mlts (1038732) on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:33AM (#47146607)

    There are a lot of places here in the US, where even basic DSL or cellular service is fairly hard to come by, and if one goes with a conventional satellite provider, it becomes very expensive very fast.

    This is something that I have high hopes for... done right, and assuming the uplink/downlink antennas are not too expensive, this would allow a baseline of Internet access in a whole region. Latency is "meh", but it is a lot better than what a lot of places have right now.

    • by Solandri (704621) on Monday June 02, 2014 @12:42PM (#47147477)
      My workplace is in an unincorporated urban area of Los Angeles (91748) where Verizon has a monopoly on phone service and none of the cable companies offer service to commercial areas. Verizon realizes they have a monopoly on commercial Internet service, so has not bothered upgrading their phone lines. The DSL speeds are 1.5 Mbps down, 384 kbps up. They charge $50/mo for this. Some phone lines are capable of 3.0/.768, but talking with other nearby businesses it seems to be about one in 5-10 phone lines which are able to get the higher speeds. (The "higher" speed is $100/mo.)

      I went camping up in the San Bernardino Mountains [google.com] this past weekend. The 3G internet speeds there on my phone were 1.8 Mbps down, 0.8 Mbps up. What Verizon is (not) doing with DSL in areas where they have no competition is absolutely criminal. If Google can pull this off, it'll be a work-around to the "one DSL company and one cable Internet company are sufficient competition" court decisions. And a good kick to the rear of the existing de facto monopolies as they'd be forced to actually offer competitive service and pricing or lose all their customers. The satellites being in LEO means they'll be circling the Earth, so they would cover the U.S. just as well as Central Africa.
  • Will they provide those people with cost-effective end user devices, too? I'm thinking that a lot of the under-served are 2nd / 3rd world, or extremely rural 1st world. Places where infrastructure of any kind is severely lacking. It would be nice to get these people onto the internet, of course, but I think they might benefit more from electricity first. When you live somewhere where you pay for electricity as per litre of diesel in your geny, I don't think internet access features high on the list of "Thin
  • by rjstanford (69735) on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:33AM (#47146615) Homepage Journal

    They've brought a surprising amount of electrical power - first wired, now often solar - to remote parts of the globe simply because refrigeration helps them sell enough more product to make the investment worthwhile. This can be quite a good thing if the infrastructure remains open enough.

    • by bigpat (158134) on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:48AM (#47146741)
      I recall Dean Kamen saying how he agreed to help Coca Cola with their new soda machine that could dispense hundreds of different flavors if they helped him distribute his water purification systems in parts of the world where Coke was one of very few distributors. Win-win [wired.co.uk]. Sometimes people can use companies not just to make money.
    • by afidel (530433)

      Yeah, I've also heard that NGO's attempting to get supplies into the most backwater bush locations will often contract with the local Coke distributor because they reach like 99.95% of the worlds population.

  • So I know where this might be going.
  • I recall reading a while back about a project like this. They wanted to put satellites in orbit that would be continously streaming a pre-selected amount of internet (wikipedia and other such actually useful websites) so that you wouldn't necessarily get two-way communication, but you'd get access to all the latest and greatest from online resources.
    • I've wondered if/when SiriusXM or even DirctTV might start "datacasting" in a similar manner.
      • I've wondered if/when SiriusXM or even DirctTV might start "datacasting" in a similar manner.

        I think the word is still broadcasting.

        For a short while, the BBC used to transmit computer programs in BBC basic over the air. With a suitably equipped BBC micro, you could download and run them.

        • by stg (43177)
          Did it require special equipment on the user side? I have heard of this being done in Brazil, too, but all you needed was to tape the transmission, then load it normally with a tape player on the computer.
      • by afidel (530433)

        Way back in the early to mid 90's Channel One had a type of datacasting service where they would push certain web pages to a caching box, it later was expanded to a pre-DOCSIS dialup + cable modem type setup that allowed two way communications.

    • I had the same idea, except mine involved piggybacking on the sat TV system - putting a drive in the decoders, which have ethernet ports anyway. I envisioned it as a way to distribute things like software updates - a protocol by which updaters may query other devices on the LAN for files of a specified hash, and if the sat decoder managed to grab it then it'll serve the file up. But I am not rich, nor have I any business skill, so my idea remains no more than a comment on slashdot.

  • How about freeing the rest us from the tyranny of Comcast? I am tired of being under their thumb.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Where is the bottleneck? what part of your community is locking you into Comcast?

      • Their exclusive contracts with the existing infrastructure. Oh, we're an open town - I can change providers any time I like, but it requires moving to a new house.

      • It is the ONLY internet service offered in my area. Eeeesh, I cannot believe that a Comcast drone is trying to astroturf me....
        • Really? Your local telco doesn't offer any DSL service? I believe you, but your situation is REALLY rare.

  • Iridium flares (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wdconinc (704592) on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:43AM (#47146697)
    Sounds an awful lot like Iridium [wikipedia.org] satellites: cell phone connectivity in the middle of nowhere. Their business plan must have overlooked that there is hardly anyone in the middle of nowhere, so they went bankrupt. The primary result is satellite flashes (iridium flares) that are brighter than Venus.
    • Re:Iridium flares (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday June 02, 2014 @11:02AM (#47146825) Journal

      The only part they overlooked was not that there wan't anyone in the middle of nowhere, but that most of the people in the middle of nowhere found $5/minute on a large, dedicated device a touch on the pricey side.

      • by westlake (615356)

        The only part they overlooked was not tthat... most of the people in the middle of nowhere found $5/minute on a large, dedicated device a touch on the pricey side.

        With billions of dollars of infrastructure to build and maintain, how can the Google service be made more affordable?

        • by Teancum (67324)

          There are many ways to improve satellite data service compared to what Iridium is doing. You are comparing 1980's technology to stuff in the 21st Century, where I think there has been some improvements in terms of the quality of computer equipment being used. Bandwidth has definitely increased, as has satellite to ground or the reverse in terms of radio technology being employed. That by itself can make the service considerably more affordable.

          Iridium was a good first try, but it is the first generation

        • by mspohr (589790)

          Google is an advertising company.
          More eyeballs equals more money.

    • by Megane (129182)

      Iridium had problems because it was just a little bit ahead of its time. First of all, it uses analog hardware. To use it for digital data, you need a modem, and you can forget about going beyond 9600 baud. If they had done it a few years later, it could probably have been digital. With no digital capability, the only people who had any real use for the service were ships at sea and polar explorers.

      The other big problem was launch costs. Then the whole project went bankrupt and was bought cheap. Launch cos

      • by afidel (530433)

        Funny enough my boss was testing an Iridium satphone just today. One of our senior execs is going rafting in the grand canyon and wants to be able to get SMS and possibly make a call while out there and our CEO is thinking about going on a safari and would want the same capabilities.

    • by Animats (122034)

      Iridum turned out to be a huge success, but not for the expected reason. The U.S. Government bought into it, buying half the capacity, just in time for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. DoD and the State Department have lots of people in the middle of nowhere who need to communicate, and Iridium does the job for them. Most ships of any size have an Iridium phone or two on board.

      Iridium airtime is now around $1/minute. U.S. Government usage is now under 25% of use, and the number of users is slowly increa

      • Iridum turned out to be a huge success, but not for the expected reason. The U.S. Government bought into it, buying half the capacity, just in time for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. DoD and the State Department have lots of people in the middle of nowhere who need to communicate, and Iridium does the job for them. Most ships of any size have an Iridium phone or two on board.

        Iridium airtime is now around $1/minute. U.S. Government usage is now under 25% of use, and the number of users is slowly increasing. There's an SMS message capability, and lots of devices in remote areas report in using it. Messages cost about $1/KB, which, considering some US carriers were charging $0.20 per SMS message, isn't bad.

        If you let me discard the costs of building _anything_ in bankruptcy, I could call it a huge success.

      • by jandrese (485)
        $1/minute for realistically at best 4800 baud isn't a data win. A $1/kb SMS capability makes it cheaper than SMS on a traditional cell phone ($2.24 for the same data) hilariously enough, but that's only because my local carriers are completely unashamed about blatantly ripping people off on SMS.

        I don't think this is ever going to happen. That's a crapton of satellites to launch, and the market just isn't there to support it. People who are going to be able to afford this are generally going to already
  • by RockClimbingFool (692426) on Monday June 02, 2014 @10:45AM (#47146705)

    A few companies have proposed this type of system, most notably ICO Global Communications [wikipedia.org]. It hasn't ended well.

    Granted, Google is a much more established company than some collection of venture capitalists, but manufacturing, launching and managing constellations of satellites is extremely complex. You can't do it alone and at least one company along the way will over-promise and under-deliver. That stalls the overall program and problems just snowball from there.

    Google obviously has experience managing some mapping satellites, but scaling up to dozens and hundreds is not straightforward.

    • FYI, they don't manage mapping satellites. They buy the imaging (primarily from DigitalGlobe).

      • by afidel (530433)

        Actually Google owns exclusive online rights to the images produced by GeoEye-1 which is managed by DigitalGlobe so it's kindof both.

        • by jandrese (485)
          They put money into it, but I don't think Google engineers were spending much time buiding/launching the bird.
        • That's kind of like saying that, if Tiffany has an agreement to buy 100% of the gold coming out of a given mine, that Tiffany has expertise in gold mining.

  • Looks like when Google bought Motorola it also inherited the madcap team that conceived the irridium project. [wikipedia.org]
  • counting on new Internet users in underserved regions to boost revenue, and ultimately, earnings.

    If they were doing this out of a sense of humanitarianism thinking the internet is so important that they want to do some altruistic investment, that's one thing.

    If they are thinking they have a significant revenue opportunity in regions without infrastructure to otherwise participate in the internet, that seems a dubious investment. It seems that such areas are underserrved because they can't afford it. Spending a large amount of money to work around one fairly small facet of their reality seems like it wo

    • by evilviper (135110)

      It seems that such areas are underserrved because they can't afford it.

      That's never the reason... Or rather, it can be a self-reinforcing problem.

      Sometimes it's a problem of geography... Land-locked countries don't have access to those submarine cables that coastal countries can connect to.

      But scale seems to ALWAYS be a problem. Without enough early-adopters... people willing to commit a big chunk of their income to non-essential internet access... you never get the economies of scale, and it stays astr

  • Since they invested in balloon, it seems it is far cheaper. And they can control the trajectory using this method https://smartech.gatech.edu/bi... [gatech.edu]

  • by bobbied (2522392) on Monday June 02, 2014 @11:30AM (#47147011)

    I don't think a Billion is enough to do much more than a proof of concept. Google is going to have to pony up a few more bills or this will be a huge boondoggle. But if anybody has the money it's Google.

    Next up will be the purchase of the spectrum space needed for this. I'm thinking LightSquared has some licenses they could get by talking to the bankruptcy judge..

  • by kriston (7886) on Monday June 02, 2014 @11:36AM (#47147069) Homepage Journal

    Why didn't they just buy ViaSat, their space and ground segments, and their Exede brand? Charlie Ergen isn't going to sell HughesNet anytime soon.

    It must be nice for your stock to be so excessively overvalued to have so much money to throw around on all these ancillary projects.

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      It must be nice for your stock to be so excessively overvalued to have so much money to throw around on all these ancillary projects.

      Google has money to throw around because they're excessively profitable.
      They aren't issuing shares to fund this stuff.
      As for ancillary... well, here's two quotes from their IPO prospectus

      And now, we are in the process of establishing the Google Foundation. We intend to contribute significant resources to the foundation, including employee time and approximately 1% of Googleâ(TM)s equity and profits in some form. We hope someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the worldâ(TM)s problems.

      We will optimize for the long term rather than trying to produce smooth earnings for each quarter. We will support selected high-risk, high-reward projects and manage our portfolio of projects.

      They have always aimed to do things outside search/advertising.

  • Satellites? (Score:5, Funny)

    by nospam007 (722110) * on Monday June 02, 2014 @12:02PM (#47147265)

    The cheap bastards. If they'd added a couple of billions, they could have gotten a headphone company.

    • It is more likely Apple bought that company for tax purposes.

    • Thank for that nospam007 - you just brightened my day!
    • by netsavior (627338)
      Apple bought an urban market. They don't need Dr Dre to teach them how to build headphones, they need millions of customers who are willing to pay a 200 dollar premium for a brand image (because that has almost ALWAYS been Apple's strategy)... As the black turtleneck fades they desperately need some other angle.

      Pay 200 more because it's Beats
      Pay 200 more because it's Apple

      The two companies could not be a better match.
  • Just imagine a Beowulf cluster.... oh, never mind.

    On the subject of Beowulf clusters: now that Tolkien's translation [amazon.com] is available, do we need a new stupid /. meme?

  • Will these puppies also have some form of GPS in them? Not only will they know what filth you are posting but they'll know where you posted it from.

    • Will these puppies also have some form of GPS in them? Not only will they know what filth you are posting but they'll know where you posted it from.

      With triangulation, and Doppler shift calculations it doesn't matter. Though it's much harder to do those things with everyone vs just have them send their position data. Not that ISPs don't already know everything about you.

  • Once they're deployed, you can look up http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome [wikipedia.org] anywhere in the world

    ...but be quick about it.
    • by jandrese (485)
      Luckily they're LEOs so their garbage will come down in a reasonable amount of time, even if Google goes tits up and shuts the whole thing down without ceremony.
  • ...if they also gave everybody access to the feeds from the cameras that will likely be pointed at Earth. But I bet various governments won't let that happen. Might be possible for citizens to break the encryption on the camera video data though.
  • These satellites will orbit over the same areas served by the geosynchronous satellites used by Hughes Net and Wild Blue. If Google can beat their prices that's millions more potential customers. I know I'm sick of a 475 Mb daily cap for $80 a month.
    • by iggymanz (596061)

      if you think you are going to get "broadband" access speeds to download your 475 MB in even a month via these proposed sattelites I've got some engineering reality with which to slap you upside the head

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