Google seeks to provide internet access for underserved regions via satellites

Google is reportedly becoming an Internet Service Provider in areas where ISPs may not exist due to limited demand or geographical constraints. It's doing so by investing $1 - $3 billion in satellites.

O3b Networks' satellites
Image: O3b Networks

Google's newest venture is a bit removed from cloud computing — it actually sits in Low Earth orbit, as reports indicate that Google CEO Larry Page is looking to expand availability of internet connections beyond first-world countries, by pledging approximately $1 - $3 billion USD to the project. Greg Wyler, founder of O3b ("Other 3 billion") Networks, a satellite telecommunications startup, has recently joined Google to head up the project.

This is the latest in a series of acquisitions and announcements from Facebook and Google to deliver reliable internet access around the world, mostly in underserved areas.

Why this matters

A surprisingly large number of people do not have reliable access to an internet connection, and for a wide variety of reasons. Foremost among these reasons is a lack of economic development in a particular area, preventing the rollout of a traditional wired internet connection.

In many cases, the existing telecommunications infrastructure is too poor to use. This is often compounded by geographical difficulties in wired deployments — for example, building a telecommunications infrastructure around a mountainous region can be challenging. In other instances, smaller communities and areas with low population density have limited or zero options for broadband internet, as is the case in a wide expanse of North Canada.

What has been done before

The idea of deploying satellites has been tried before, most notably by Teledesic, a company founded in the 1990s, which attracted Microsoft and founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen to individually invest in the venture. The original plans for Teledesic were remarkably expensive, with 840 satellites in orbit and in-orbit spares at a projected cost of $9 billion. This was later scaled back to 288 satellites at a more distant orbit, with only one satellite being deployed after a merger with ICO Global Communications (now Pendrell Corporation).

Although Google has very deep pockets for such a venture, the cost estimation of $1 - $3 billion may be too low. Roger Rusch of TelAstra Inc., was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, "This is exactly the kind of pipe dream we have seen before."

The limitations of ad-hoc infrastructure

While a reliable internet connection is a good and necessary thing to foster economic development, there are limitations to wireless technology, particularly satellite internet transmission. Satellite-based internet transmission has been available in the continental US for some time, most popularly from the service HughesNet (formerly DirecWay, itself formerly DirecPC). Per the HughesNet website, the most expensive plan still has a data cap of 40 GB per month.

Even with a reliable internet connection using wireless means, attempting to reach consumers in developing markets with services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll (which have to some extent supplanted the home media market of distributing films and TV shows on DVD and Blu-ray in the US) is too lofty of a goal for this venture. Attempting mass streaming video through satellite internet transmission would likely too quickly saturate the link, and cause undue performance degradation.

Conflating altruism with market access

In my opinion, Google's (and Facebook's) motivation for expanding into the ISP role in underserved markets is quite clear: bringing more potential consumers onto the internet will increase its potential advertising revenue. This isn't altogether a bad thing, and while it is a welcome return to Google's "Don't be evil" mantra, the idea of corporations being either benevolent or malevolent is one that should be avoided.

Speak out

What is your opinion of rolling out internet connectivity using satellite communications, or, of companies such as Google and Facebook attempting to become ISPs? Will your organization pursue ways to specifically attract users from newly-connected and developing countries? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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