A bold plan to cover the world with high-speed satellite internet may not be as crazy as it sounds and may be a license to print money, according to one of the leading experts in Internet networking.
Low-latency routing in space, in which a swarm of satellites in low-Earth orbit passes through the super-fast wireless internet, seems more effort and expense than it's worth. But the idea has been heavily explored by Silicon Valley in recent years – and one man in particular wants to make it a reality. And now you know him well.
He is the controversial billionaire Elon Musk, whose private rocket company SpaceX wants to build a constellation of communication satellites as part of a project dubbed Starlink.
The company was approved Friday by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to send another 7518 satellites into space as part of the ambitious plan, in addition to the 4,400 already approved.
The main components of such a project were made before, but certainly not to the extent that SpaceX would need Starlink to succeed.
Professor Mark Handley, from the Department of Computer Science at University College London, is a specialist in network topology and recently decided to create a simulation of how Starlink could work.
"The devil is in the details, and SpaceX seems to be pushing the boundaries of what has been done before on multiple fronts simultaneously," he told news.com.au. But he thinks the project is feasible.
Prof. Handley bent over the company's FCC submissions to get a rough idea of what SpaceX hopes to do. Interestingly, the company is likely to use lasers instead of radio waves to fire messages between satellites since it has not requested any radio spectrum for satellite-satellite communication.
"Basically, we infer this by the omission of any radio frequencies for communication between satellites, and the discussion of certain components of optical communications that can survive re-entry," said Prof. Handley. "This was later confirmed in additional FCC communications, but we still do not know exactly how they plan to use laser links to connect the satellites."
The video below shows how it can be. The Prof. Handley said he used some educated guesses and basic physics to "fill in the gaps" of what could be possible for SpaceX.
THE GREAT GUN OF ELON
SpaceX has some of the most advanced rocket technologies in the world and its pioneering reusable rockets will be crucial to the Starlink plan. The rocket system allows boosters, which are usually discarded after a single use, to land safely on land and be reused for other launches.
"Without that, it's hard to see how that would have been feasible," Handley said. "It's important to understand that they are not just building once. Satellites only have a life span of five to seven years, so they need to launch an average of two satellites per day, continuously.
"They can get 25 to 30 satellites on a rocket, and considerably more if their next-generation BFR rocket works, so it's not as crazy as it sounds."
Of course, SpaceX, which works closely with NASA, has the support of the US government.
"I'm excited to see what these services can promise and what these proposed constellations have to offer," said FCC President Ajit Pai on Friday after SpaceX was granted approval to launch more satellites provided it your plan.
A LICENSE TO PRINT MONEY
In addition to providing the internet to virtually every corner of the world, such a network offers a great deal of benefit – it has the potential to significantly reduce the latency of long-distance communications. That's because free-space lasers communicate at the speed of light in the vacuum, which is faster than the speed of light through the glass, such as that used in fiber optic ground cables.
And according to Prof. Handley, there lies the potential genius.
He believes that something like Starlink could be extremely attractive to high frequency traders at major banks who may be willing to fork out a speed advantage when it comes to trading based on algorithms in the stock market and the stock exchanges.
It may sound like a foreign concept, but being able to reduce milliseconds to their latency can translate into a lot of money for these companies, who are looking for an advantage to be able to respond to the market faster than others.
Michael Lewis's book of 2014 Flash Boys has chronicled the rise of the high-frequency negotiations and begins by describing a $ 300 million Spread Networks project – building a 1331-kilometer cable that directly cuts mountains and rivers from Chicago to New Jersey – with the sole purpose of reducing time for data from 17 to 13 milliseconds.
Theoretically, SpaceX could charge high premiums to access its super-fast Starlink network.
"I think it's the low latency benefit that will generate the most money, and its use by the financial industry is likely to pay off many of the bills," Handley said.
"I think the social benefits of connecting remote places will be huge, and they will contribute revenue, but if it were just to connect to remote locations, I do not think Starlink could pay for itself."
Prof. Handley was in the US this week presenting his research paper and working on Starlink's simulation at a conference in Seattle.
"Perhaps surprisingly, not many network researchers know about Starlink's plans," he said.
"This is not just the existing Internet in space – the rapidly changing nature of satellite routes puts all sorts of interesting networking research issues, and will no doubt keep us busy with network researchers for many years."
Ultimately, he thinks such a network is inevitable. But if SpaceX is able to do that in the next few years, it still is not known.
Like everything Musk has done lately, there will be no shortage of people watching.