Google has never shied from novelty or spending big to find ways to connect more people to the Internet. Over the last two years, its ideas have included fleets of little satellites, solar-powered drones that would fly around the world and balloons that float high into the stratosphere, beaming the Internet to those below.
Building on that, Google and the mutual fund giant Fidelity announced a $1 billion investment on Tuesday into Space Exploration Technologies, a growing private rocket company that is still trying to prove itself on the world stage. The company, also known as SpaceX, could give Google a way to put its devices into outer space.
With that growing collection of devices in the sky, Google believes it can spread the Internet to underserved areas around the world. The investments also reflect a bit of enlightened self-interest, since the more people who are connected directly to Google, the more ads it can show them. And that is how Google makes its money.
“Anything they provide, if it’s going through their own pipe, they have more control over the experience and more potential for revenue,” said J P Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research. That means those consumers are more likely to stick with Google services like search, Gmail or YouTube rather than going somewhere else.
Google’s interest in satellites is anything but original. Last week, the Virgin Group and Qualcomm, a maker of communications semiconductors, announced they had invested in OneWeb, a network of Internet connectivity satellites, while Planet Labs, a maker of shoebox-size satellites that offer Earth imagery, announced Tuesday that it had received $95 million in financing.
Last year, Facebook bought a British drone maker and hired a bevy of top aerospace scientists, with the goal of deploying high-altitude, unmanned planes to deliver Internet service to parts of the world that have little connectivity now. It is also experimenting with satellites and lasers to deliver Internet services.
These companies have different technologies and different ideas for making money, but the bind among them is a common assumption that there is no economic way to physically wire the world’s underserved consumers. So the only way to do it is with satellites and other wireless technologies.
There is another benefit for Google: The company is always looking for ways to get around Internet service providers. As Google executives have shown with new offerings, from insurance shopping to the growing Google Fiber broadband service, if there is one thing they believe, it is that their company’s interests are best served by going directly to the consumer.
And as first reported on the tech website The Information, Google has been in talks with cellular network companies with a goal of providing its own wireless service, according to two people familiar with Google’s efforts.
“If you’re a big Internet company, you don’t want to have to deal with every cable company, every telco, that are potentially or actually trying to interfere with your freedom to do business,” said Steve Jurvetson, a founder and partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a Menlo Park, California, venture capital firm. He is on the boards of both SpaceX and Planet Labs.
This idea of sky-high Internet connections seems to be a fixture of technology booms. In the mid-1990s, there were similar efforts. One, called Sky Station, was a sort of stratospheric blimp that would hover over areas that needed broadband Internet service. It was not successful, mostly because there was not much demand for the high-speed access it could provide, said Martine Rothblatt, inventor of the satellite service SiriusXM who was a Sky Station partner and is now chief executive of United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company.
“Twenty years ago, when people were like really happy to get a phone call on a mobile phone, it was inconceivable that most people’s television platform would be their mobile” device, Rothblatt said.
Today, Rothblatt added, the demand for bandwidth is “essentially insatiable.” The interest in satellites also extends to services. Last year, Google spent about $500 million to buy Skybox Imaging, a maker of small high-resolution imaging satellites that could do things like monitor crops or map the terrain below a forest canopy.
But be it imaging or connections, the recent interest in satellites stems from a reduction in satellite cost. Unlike the first space race, when governments had to make almost everything themselves, there are now all kinds of off-the-shelf chips, batteries and other components that can be mixed and matched. And just as the camera on your mobile phone becomes better with each upgrade, the advancement in space imaging technology has been rapid.
“Aerospace is following business because the dominant research and development dollars are no longer in the Air Force or NASA, but they are in Google and Apple and all these places pushing the boundaries of miniaturized electronics,” said Will Marshall, co-founder and chief executive of Planet Labs.
There is nothing new about connecting to the Internet via satellite. People do it on airplanes, at sea and in remote corners of the world. ViaSat, a Carlsbad, Calif., satellite company, beams satellite Internet to 700,000 homes and apartments in the United States. But this is done with bigger, higher-orbiting satellites that sit in a geosynchronous orbit, meaning that they move at the same speed as the earth and so stay above a fixed point. Mark Dankberg, ViaSat chief executive, estimated that dozens of companies around the world are working on satellite-based Internet services that are regional in scope and use these higher-orbit technologies.