Musk takes on another impossible dream

29 November 2014 by Steve Blum
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It’s hard to bet against Elon Musk. He made a fortune as a founder of PayPal, but instead of fading into a life of one-hit wonder obscurity sitting on boards and listening to investment pitches, he doubled down by going weird: electric cars and rocket ships, old ideas with a long trail of broken genius. Each venture had “billionaire vanity project” written all over it. Now, both look likely to revolutionise transportation. We can only hope his Hyperloop daydreaming follows the same path.

Can he revive a 1990s satellite mega-constellation project? Musk has confirmed that he has a 700-satellite low earth swarm under development, a globe circling network of 100 kg birds that could deliver Internet connectivity anywhere on the planet – land, sea or air. Details are scarce, but it sounds a lot like a revival of the Teledesic project, which started out as a proposal to put 800 or 900 birds in orbit, each capable of handling as much as a gigabit of throughput.

The two guys behind it – Craig McCaw and Bill Gates – had as much cred then as Musk does now. But the reality of launching what was originally a $9 billion system was too much even for them. Eventually scaled back to 288 satellites and finally to nothing, Teledesic fell victim to the reality of physics and economics: cutting costs means reducing mass which decreases available power which equals less bandwidth. Scarce capacity is expensive capacity – eventually the billions add up to real money – making it the bandwidth of last resort. It’s hard to make a business model work on that basis.

Gates and McCaw thought so, anyway. Teledesic was shelved along with several other grand satellite plans of that era. But Musk seems ready to make another try. It’s hard to think of anything that’s changed significantly: technology is a lot better but bandwidth demand and expectations are even higher. But if it was easy to think of, someone would have figured it out already. Musk isn’t just someone. So it’s worth paying attention.