Elon Musk's SpaceX strives to build space infrastructure for internet service
By CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT | The Washington Post. | Published: May 15, 2019
SpaceX was poised to launch 60 satellites to space Wednesday night, a significant step forward in the race to provide internet service across the globe from a constellation of satellites whizzing around the planet.
The launch would be the first step in a competition that pits Elon Musk's company SpaceX against other companies, notably OneWeb, the enterprise backed by Softbank, Airbus, Richard Branson and other big investors that launched its first satellites in February.
Amazon also recently confirmed that it plans to put up a constellation of its own, adding yet another high-profile billionaire, Jeff Bezos, to what has become a new space race. (Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
On Twitter, Musk recently wrote that the company would need to put up six more batches of 60 satellites for "minor" coverage for what it calls its Starlink program, and an additional 12 batches for "moderate" coverage. But he warned that "much will likely go wrong on 1st mission."
In a call with reporters, Musk cautioned that "there is a lot of new technology here, and so it's possible that some of these satellites may not work. In fact there is a small possibility that all of the satellites might not work."
In the race to put up large constellations, it's unclear which of the companies, if any, will be successful. At stake is the chance to be one of the world's largest internet providers by building the architecture in space, giving Wi-Fi access to billions of people without it.
In the past, others have tried and failed to do just what SpaceX, OneWeb and others are hoping to accomplish. Teledesic, a company funded by Bill Gates in the mid-1990s, failed after costs soared into the billions of dollars. Attempts by Iridium and Globalstar failed after both ended up in bankruptcy.
Musk said he was well aware of that history.
"I do believe we will be successful, but it is far from a sure thing." He declined to comment on his competitors, saying only that the company was focused on Starlink and that "it's always good to have competition." He added, though, that SpaceX would be happy to launch any of his competitors' satellites.
OneWeb, founded by tech entrepreneur Greg Wyler in 2012, has said his goal is to "connect every school in the world, and bridge the digital divide."
In a statement, Amazon said its program, known as Project Kuiper, is designed to bring broadband to "unserved and underserved communities around the world. This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband Internet."
Musk said his company has a similar goal to connect the disconnected. But at the moment, the company was not actively seeking customers, he said.
SpaceX has the advantage of being able to fly its satellites on its own rockets. But putting up a constellation of thousands of satellites is a very expensive proposition. And SpaceX faces significant funding challenges, said Tim Farrar, the founder of Telecom, Media and Finance Associates.
According to a filing last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission, SpaceX sought to raise $400 million, but it had only raised $44 million as of the filing, required 15 days after the round opens. In an earlier fundraising round, when it attempted to raise $500 million, it sold $273 million in equity, according to an SEC filing from January.
Musk said that that data was out of date and that the company's recent funding rounds have been "oversubscribed." He didn't provide amounts for how much capital the company raised, but he said: "At this point, it looks like we have sufficient capital to get to an operational level."
"The big issue is: Do people believe in Elon Musk's vision," Farrar said. "That's ultimately going to be a critical factor as to whether they can raise money."
But, he said, the fact that the company has 60 satellites will show people that the company "has moved that far, that fast," he said.
Putting up gigantic constellations of satellites has worried some in the space industry, given the large amount of debris in orbit. But SpaceX's satellites would be equipped with thrusters and be able to autonomously maneuver around the debris and avoiding collisions, Musk said.
If SpaceX is successful, Musk said it would be able to generate revenue that far outpaces what it earns launching satellites into space on its rockets. That would help the company fund its next-generation rocket, known as Starship, which the company hopes to use to fly to the moon and eventually to Mars, he said.