Rumor Mill: Google-backed venture will launch satellites in 5 years to deliver global Internet access

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Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has its Project Loon balloons as well as drones via its acquisition of Titan Aerospace. Now it appears the Internet giant will soon add satellites to its bag of wireless broadband tricks.

Rumors have been rampant over recent months regarding Google's satellite ambitions, which are tied to a desire to increase its information-gathering prowess (think Google Earth and Google Street View) as well as an effort to extend wireless broadband services worldwide and, thus, create a larger market for its other Internet-based products, including search, YouTube and more.

In April, it was widely reported that Google was eyeing Skybox Imaging, a California-based startup that builds imaging microsatellites. Nothing appears to have transpired on that front, but WorldVu Satellites--a new company Google is reportedly backing--has secured spectrum rights for a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation.

According to SpaceNews, WorldVu, registered in Britain's Channel Islands--a favorite tax haven--gained Ku-band spectrum once owned by defunct company SkyBridge. WorldVu intends to launch a constellation of 360 small Ku-band satellites that will provide Internet service to individual consumers around the world. WorldVu, which lists itself as L5 in official filings with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), pledged to start service in late 2019.

The satellites have been given regulatory deadlines of between late 2019 and mid-2020 to enter service, according to ITU records cited by SpaceNews.

The Wall Street Journal reported that sources have said Google will commit $1 billion to $3 billion on the satellite fleet. And although a satellite industry official told SpaceNews that Google's ultimate involvement in the WorldVu venture "remains speculative at this point," numerous clues seem to confirm Google's participation.

For example, Google's Access division recently brought on board Brian Holz, former CTO at O3b Networks, a company Google previously invested in. O3b is using Ka-band frequencies that were abandoned by the now-defunct Teledesic venture to build a satellite network for telecommunications operators, Internet service providers as well as enterprise and government customers in emerging markets.

O3b confirmed to SpaceNews that Holz "is leaving us for Google, which as you know is an O3b shareholder, but he will continue to serve on O3b's technical advisory committee."

Interestingly, WorldVu is based in St. Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands, the same town where Greg Wyler registered and founded O3b Networks. That leads to speculation that Wyler is also involved with WorldVu.

Additionally, Google Access has hired Dave Bettinger, former CTO of satellite ground terminal provider VT iDirect, a supplier of broadband and other communications to military services and the oil and gas industry.

Google is not the only Silicon Valley giant eyeing satellite communications. The Information cited two people who have spoken to Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) employees, who said the social media firm is keeping tabs on Google's satellite endeavors. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made comments regarding the potential for satellites to bring broadband access to the developing world via the Facebook-founded Internet.org coalition.

Google's acquisition of drone maker Titan Aerospace in April followed Facebook's newly announced initiative with drone maker Ascenta. However, Facebook does not appear to have any airborne-Internet balloons to rival Google's Project Loon effort.

Aerospace manufacturers are tracking Silicon Valley's satellite ambitions. A Boeing spokeswoman told The Information, "Google and Facebook are beginning to show a broader interest in satellite technology and [our] industry is keeping an eye on the opportunities that may arise as a result."

According to satellite industry analyst Tim Farrar, regulatory filings show that WorldVu's constellation of LEO Ku-band satellites will have 18 planes of 20 satellites, with half at an altitude of 950 kilometers and the remainder at 800km.

"I would expect the constellation to be launched in two phases, with the higher altitude satellites providing complete global coverage, and the lower satellites being added later, in between the initial nine planes, to provide additional capacity. It also seems likely that the system could include inter-satellite crosslinks (within each of the two halves of the constellation) given the near polar orbit that is planned," he wrote in a blog on his TMF Associates website.  

Farrar said $3 billion, the upper range of the satellite system's reported budget, is a very conservative price target. He noted that Teledesic was supposed to cost $10 billion back in 1999, while the O3b and Iridium Next systems cost at least $40 million per satellite to build and launch. However, the WorldVu satellites would be smaller, weighing about 250 pounds vs. 1,500 pounds for O3b's, and that would reduce the total cost per satellite, though possibly not enough for the project to come in on budget.

"Construction and launch of the first half of the constellation could probably be achieved within five years, if the satellites were small enough for dozens of them to be launched at once, and sufficient launch slots could be secured," Farrar wrote.

"However, it seems Google has not yet engaged actively with satellite manufacturers to seek their input on design feasibility (let alone bids) and so it might be premature to expect any formal announcement (and for the clock to start running on construction) at this stage," he added.

For more:
- see this SpaceNews article
- see The Information article (sub. req.)
- see this Wall Street Journal article (sub.req.)
- see this TMF Associates blog post

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