For many, it's been a yearslong pipe dream: Ultra-fast, lag-free internet that comes to your PC or smartphone via satellite instead of a wire into your home. Facebook, Google and even SpaceX have explored the idea, partly in hopes of selling broadband access to a growing market with enormous potential: the developing world.
But now, a former Googler and friend of Elon Musk has beaten them all to the punch, becoming the first to receive permission to actually build a next-generation satellite internet service that targets U.S. customers. If it takes off, the project could benefit Americans nationwide by providing broadband anywhere in the United States, particularly in rural areas where it can be difficult to provide fast internet connections using traditional ground-based cables.
At the heart of Greg Wyler's new network are a fleet of 720 satellites, all orbiting the Earth at an altitude of roughly 745 miles. The first satellites would launch next year, and service could start as early as 2019. On Thursday, federal regulators voted to give Wyler and his company, OneWeb, approval to use the airwaves that will beam the internet down to earth.
Satellite internet services are available now. But today's technology is slow, expensive and largely out-of-reach for individual consumers. For a connection barely fast enough to support Netflix, users can spend up to $200 a day - making it realistic only for corporate customers or, in some cases, relief workers responding to natural disasters where connectivity is a must.
By contrast, the next generation of satellite internet services promises to reduce lag by bringing the satellites closer to Earth. By placing them in low-Earth orbit instead of geostationary orbit, internet data will spend less time in transit - leading to a smoother, faster internet experience.
OneWeb may have been the first to apply for FCC approval, but it wasn't the last - and the agency expects to greenlight more projects, said Chairman Ajit Pai.
"It is our hope that in the future years to come, Americans will be able to use these networks when they're in the sky to make their own destiny," he said.
In 2007, Wyler tested the concept by launching a similar satellite network aimed at business customers. That venture, known as O3b Networks, now has 12 satellites in medium orbit, about 5,000 miles high. The company boasts that they are capable of providing speeds of 1 Gbps - as fast as Google Fiber - with less lag than what you'd see with just a handful of satellites placed higher up.
But reducing lag at lower orbits comes with a trade-off: You need more satellites. At low-Earth orbit, the satellites are whipping around the globe rather than permanently pointing at one spot, as a geostationary satellite would. And that's why OneWeb's new broadband project is planning for hundreds of satellites.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has even more ambitious plans for 4,400 satellites in low-Earth orbit. It, along with 10 other entities, submitted plans to the FCC last year for approval. The FCC said last month that if those companies also receive approval, the government will apply exactly the same expectations to them as it is to OneWeb.