In November 2018, Elon Musk received permission to launch 7,000 satellites into orbit. It’s not a vanity project — and he wasn’t even the first to receive permission that day. Three other companies did as well, and “Sir” Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic has been talking for years about launching a constellation of satellites into orbit. The goal of projects like these is to, among other things, create an omnipresent wireless internet across the planet.
And believe it or not, the implications of these massively important endeavors will be felt in even the smallest technologies we use on a daily basis. The Internet of Things will soon become the largest network of digital-physical objects ever conceived. So why should it interest us that Amazon, Iridium, SpaceX and many others have singled out omnipresent internet as the next great technological hill to climb?
Because harnessing the right hardware and software now means taking the IoT worldwide tomorrow — and that means major profits for tech companies, plus major changes and opportunities for the rest of us.
What Do We Need in Order to Build a Worldwide IoT?
A worldwide IoT requires a worldwide internet — and it requires things.
In 2017, the human race was officially outnumbered for the first time by our networked devices. That means we have the “things” taken care of. But what about a worldwide internet?
It’s been the dream of technologists, philanthropists and moguls for a long time. Elon Musk was among the most recent to make news on the “cloud of satellites” front, so let’s check in with him and what his ambitions might mean for tomorrow’s Worldwide Internet of Things.
For a start, the 7,000 satellites that SpaceX just won FCC approval to launch are a down payment on an eventual 12,000 which will orbit the earth and provide “cheap and easy” internet to much of the globe. The satellites will receive a staggered launch, and the entire project will require six years or more to complete.
The New Space Race
It’s Elon Musk that most effortlessly grabs headlines, but he has fierce competition that’s quietly moving toward its own satellite constellation. A collaboration between Amazon’s AWS and Iridium Communications has made “space IoT” the next worldwide “space race.”
The CEO of Iridium, Matt Desch, describes why this partnership is a massive undertaking as well as a huge step beyond our current approach: “We’re really covering the whole planet,” he says, versus the approximately 10 or 20 percent coverage achievable with “terrestrial” technologies like fiber.
Amazon and Iridium are even more explicit about their IoT ambitions when it comes to their satellites, the first of which went live in 2002, if you want to count their earliest launches. Desch says the result of multiple waves of launches and technology iterations should be a “mesh network” that can service tens of millions of devices at once. Interestingly, Musk’s SpaceX will deliver several future Iridium satellites into orbit.
It’s easy to see why Amazon’s AWS would see satellite-based internet as the next logical leap in web hosting and delivery services. Global satellite internet coverage, coupled with next-generation communication standards like 5G, will provide existing AWS customers with brand new cloud-based service types, not to mention greatly reduced complexity in terms of hardware and software and fewer third-party vendors required to keep one end of their business in contact and in sync with the other. Amazon wants to sell web hosting, cloud storage, analytics and other business services, all bundled together — plus the delivery mechanism it runs on. And now, potentially, they can.
It’s equally easy to see the benefits for industry in general. In mining and manufacturing, seamless communication between equipment, sensors, dashboards, vehicles, remote teams and more is a matter of productivity and safety in equal measure. Consequently, the IoT will likely have become a disruptive force in industry worth $11 trillion, because it enhances both.
What About the Rest of Us?
So what about the satellite IoT for the rest of us?
Satellite-based communication technology has been around for a long time, but achieving coverage from many satellites instead of just a few will improve both stability and top speeds versus previous incarnations of satellite internet.
What this means for the IoT is that all of our connected step counters and smartwatches, our smart window blinds and garage door openers, our laptops and desktops, our smartphones and tablets will, after these dreams of satellite coverage come to fruition, achieve connectivity wirelessly and with far fewer steps than by first shaking hands with a homeowner’s (or business owner’s) Wi-Fi network. It means massively fewer “moving parts” and potential security gaps in the world’s internet delivery infrastructure — the same infrastructure that will soon power driverless cars and smart cities as well.
Expect all of this IoT potential soon after the FCC and other regulatory bodies figure out how to govern the likes of SpaceX, Telesat, Iridium and Leosat — after they’ve become owners of what will effectively be a brand new telecommunications delivery platform. We must have blinked, because there’s a new Space Race going on — and it’s all privately rather than publicly funded this time around, by some of the most successful people and companies the world has ever seen. The world is waiting to see how they do.