Cheap internet access, anywhere, anytime

An ambitious project that is to involve thousands of small communications satellites has gotten underway. The goal? To provide cost-effective internet access to any nook or cranny in the world.

Detailed plans have been formulated by OneWeb, a U.S.-based joint venture between Europe’s Airbus and Virgin Group of Britain, as well as U.S. partners SpaceX and Boeing.

Greg Wyler, OneWeb founder and chairman, outlined the plan in an interview with The Nikkei, saying the company plans to spend more than $2.5 billion putting 882 satellites into low-Earth orbit. Mobile phone carrier SoftBank Group has decided to provide $1 billion to the company.

The idea is that small satellites cost a whole lot less to bring into space, and placing them at an altitude of approximately 1,200km will lower the price further still.

Large satellites are usually deployed in stationary orbit at altitudes higher than 30,000km.

In addition, dozens of small satellites can share the same ride into space; they can even hitch-hike on a rocket carrying a large satellite.

Down here on the planet, small and simple receiving terminals as well as repeaters will be installed at 10km intervals.

Wyler said the aim is to provide internet service that can be priced so just about anyone can afford it.

OneWeb is scheduled to put its first satellites into space next year and could begin service by 2019.

A Virgin rocket will carry the first batch of satellites.

OneWeb also seeks to make the satellites itself at a planned factory in the U.S. state of Florida.

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, founder and CEO of electric-car maker Tesla Motors, in mid-November filed detailed plans with the Federal Communications Commission.

According to these plans, the network at first will consist of 800 satellites, a number that is to eventually grow to 4,425.

The satellite network will initially provide internet service to North America. Other regions will be brought into the fold as the number of satellites grows.

Boeing in June applied for a license to deploy 1,396 satellites. The number will increase to up to 3,000.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 40% of all households in the Asia-Pacific region are hooked up to the internet. This compares to 10% in Africa. In fact, half of the world’s population lacks access to the internet.

One reason for this is that the telecom companies which provide internet service today focus their investments on urban areas, where returns are sure to be higher.

OneWeb and its partners, on the other hand, will offer internet hookups even in the least developed countries and thinly populated areas.

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