Airbus is officially throwing its hat into the ever more crowded "internet from space" arena. Yesterday at the Paris Air Show, the aircraft-manufacturing company announced it will be designing and manufacturing 900 internet-beaming satellites for OneWeb Ltd, the global information project funded by Richard Branson. The satellites could launch as early as 2018, forming OneWeb’s constellation that will provide LTE, 3G, and Wi-Fi to rural communities across the globe.
The Airbus announcement, however, is seemingly more than just a way for the company to capitalize on the competitive field of providing internet from space; the move appears to be yet another attempt by Airbus to compete with SpaceX, which is often regarded as the leading innovator and cost saver in the private sector. The spaceflight juggernaut is also charging ahead with its plan of enveloping the world in internet access from space — a goal CEO Elon Musk first trumpeted in January. And just last week, SpaceX requested permission from the FCC to begin testing the special antenna technology on its satellites that will deliver high-speed internet to the ground. According to Musk, a total of 4,000 satellites will be used to create the company’s internet infrastructure in lower Earth orbit.
Yet another attempt to compete with SpaceX
Musk hasn’t given any indication, however, of when we can expect to see his satellites up and running, so the announcement from Airbus adds some heat to the internet space race. According to Airbus, its satellites will weigh less than 330 pounds each; the plan is to send 700 of the micro-satellites up into lower Earth orbit by 2018, while the other 200 will stay on the ground and serve as replacements if necessary. Since OneWeb is receiving funding from Virgin Galactic, the satellites are expected to go up on Launcher One (that is, if the rocket stays on schedule for its planned 2016 launch). OneWeb says that when operational, the entire constellation will provide a data transfer rate of 10 terabits per second to rural communities.
This is the second recent announcement from Airbus that seems to pose a direct challenge to SpaceX. Last week at the Paris Air Show, Airbus revealed that it has been secretly working on a partially reusable rocket design for the past five years. Dubbed Adeline, the concept is meant to offer a cheaper alternative to SpaceX’s (soon to be) reusable Falcon 9 rocket, although Airbus has yet to move the project beyond prototype phase.
Meanwhile, the quest to create a comprehensive internet service from space has been eyed hungrily by many these past few years, with various tech companies hoping to be the first to make it happen. Along with Musk and Branson, Google is also working on a vast infrastructure of weather balloons that will provide internet service from the stratosphere. And even Facebook has plans of bringing internet to the masses, albeit from an army of drones instead of space satellites. First to provide internet service from the near Earth vacuum wins.