July 1, 2017

Paying for Affordable Launch: OneWeb

OneWeb (Google's satellite constellation) is preparing to manufacture three satellites a day.  

While Elon Musk's high speed internet constellation is meant to help pay for space settlement, Google's constellation has no grander purpose.  It will help drive down the cost of launch vehicles, though, by providing a steady paying customer for those services.

Space is already commercialized largely due to satellite communications and observation.  These systems are net positives to the economy, requiring no taxpayer support and strong economic activity.  Satellite television revenue alone is greater than all global space programs, combined.  The new layer of low-latency satellites can bring broadband everywhere in the world, appealing to the broader global market.  

A system that provides line of sight internet to a small antenna (the size of a magazine) has a lot of possibilities.   The same was said when satellite television went from dishes that were two meters in diameter to the ones commonly used now by Direct TV and Dish Network.  That said, they are of no use to people who rent, live in high rises, or anyone else without a secure outdoor location for such a device.  People in these situations are generally already connected via cable, fiber, or copper wire based systems. Also, unlike the television systems, these new antennas do not have to be aimed precisely.  They are more likely to be like the older generation of satellite antennas seen on some delivery trucks.

I suspect the long-term picture of OneWeb versus Space-X will be similar to the divide between Android and Apple.  

OneWeb (Google)


Lower Cost

Low- end and third world market

Lower Security

Weak fan base

Basic Design

Similar to Google Android

Attractive design

Strong fan base

Higher security

High end market and consumer use.

Higher cost

Similar to Apple products

Image and Culture

Space-X:  Apple has a strong fan base due to the role as a driver of technology.  This was eventually focused on Steve Jobs, and has been diminished in recent years due to competitors catching up and Apple slowing down. Space-X has that same halo effect due to Elon Musk revolutionizing so many industries. Apple products tend to cost more than their rivals in each market, but also tend to be more secure, easier to use, and more reliable.  They are basically better-thought-through designs.   Their competitors, in comparison, have products that appear rushed to production, confusing, buggy, and less secure.  This image isn't always deserved on either side, but it has been consistent through Microsoft, IBM, Google, Pebble, Blackberry, and so on.  

OneWeb:  Apple sells the iOS along with the phone, whereas Google gives away or licenses the Android OS to any system that will support it.  The goal is to push as much information to as many people as possible, and monetize the flow of information in both directions.  The information on products and people is the revenue source, not the system that provides the flow.  While Space-X and Apple (Circa 2010) are analogous (strong innovation image, fan base, etc.) Android and OneWeb actually are both projects of one company - Google.  We should not anticipate a rapid shift in business model. 


While Google is working on a light satellite launch system, it will probably purchase launches on Space-X where possible.  Having two or more low-latency satellite internet systems will help drive faster adoption, avoid monopoly pricing, and spur the two systems to advance technologically more quickly than they would otherwise.  This will in turn lead to yet more launches, as the older satellites are made obsolete more quickly.  

Having factories that can crank out space-rated products in high volume will also benefit other aspects of space settlement.  In the end, anything that space settlers need will have to be space-rated at some point.  This will drive down the price of doing so, while also spinning off quality innovations to other industries.

OneWeb has strong potential to be a net-win for space settlement, even if Google has no grand plans beyond LEO like other innovators.  I'm not sure I would want to live in a Google space settlement, personally, given their business model of invasive observation.   It's probably best they help pay costs of space-rated industrialization and launch costs, and then get out of everyone's way. 

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