Between 1955 and 1972, the Space Race inspired both the United States and the Soviet Union to compete with each other for cosmic dominance. There weren’t any rules. There weren’t any defining goals. It was two major competitors locked in one-upmanship as each attempted to probe further, better, and more elegantly into space. After the United States on the Moon, the competition wound down, and while there have been developments and ongoing research in space since, no country has explored the potential of the cosmos with equal ferocity.
Today, a new Space Race is dawning, but it isn’t between two countries. It’s between two tech corporations, and they’re competing just as ferociously as the Cold War participants of yesteryear. Google and Facebook, two of the most dominant online forces in the world, are now working on independent competing projects to beam global Internet access from outer space—and no matter how it turns out, consumers stand to benefit greatly.
First, let’s take a look at Google’s current efforts and their vision for universal Internet access. Back in 2013, the company introduced its ideas for global Internet with Project Loon, which still exists today. The plan was to have a series of hot-air balloons floating around remote locations to beam down Internet access. If the hot-air balloon idea seems silly, consider the fact that their balloons have been known to stay in the air for over 100 days, providing Internet connection speeds of 22 MB per second.
There are real limitations to Project Loon, however, and Google intends to step up its efforts by reaching out of the atmosphere. Google recently acquired the drone company Titan Aerospace, with the intention of creating drone planes to circle the globe—which could be used for Internet provision or for mapping purposes.
Even more interesting are Google’s plans to launch a fleet of satellites in the near future, which according to The Wall Street Journal will cost up to $3 billion to produce and launch. These satellites would be able to provide global Internet access, not just access for remote areas, but the project is still in the planning phase.
The rivalry between Google and Facebook is evident, as Facebook attempted to acquire Titan Aerospace before Google jumped on board. Undiscouraged, Mark Zuckerberg recently launched a service called Internet.org, which takes advantage of existing mobile phone networks to close the gap between portions of the world with mobile coverage but without Internet access. In a related formal announcement, Zuckerberg made his plans clear: Facebook intends to launch a fleet of atmospheric drones to fly, unmanned, around the world and beam basic Internet access straight to every corner of the globe.
Does that sound familiar? It should. While Google is working on both aerial drones and outer space satellites, Facebook is essentially striving to achieve the same goal.
SpaceX: The Third Player
Joining the party is Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is preparing to launch its own series of 700 satellites in order to provide constant, universal Internet access. SpaceX already has ample rocket propulsion and space technology to get the satellites into orbit—the only problem it has is getting the actual service to the masses from there. In terms of technological development, SpaceX is currently outclassing both Google and Facebook—but Google and Facebook may have access to more funding and more popular appeal.
Who’s Going to Win?
There are a number of complicating factors preventing each of these major players from moving forward any time soon. It’s a brand new idea, so technological and logistical hiccups are an inevitability as these tech giants discover new challenges to this type of Internet provision. Add in the ambiguous regulatory and legal hurdles that are bound to come up, and these companies may be locked in developmental limbo for years.
All three companies have similar, yet distinct plans for the same ultimate goal: providing universal Internet access. SpaceX has access to better space technology, which gives it an advantage. Google is hedging its bets with its Titan Aerospace acquisition and its plans to launch a series of satellites, and it also has the most buying power of the three, which gives it an advantage. Facebook already has the Internet-beaming technology in place with Internet.org, which gives it an advantage. Each company’s unique position and unique approach makes it incomparable to the others in a one-to-one basis. This Space Race is highly complex, especially considering how many details these companies are likely shielding from public release.
At this point, it’s impossible to say who will win the race to provide Internet to the world. All three companies may launch their respective efforts around the same time, or one may pull a few years ahead. However it turns out, the result for the average person will be the same; greater global Internet access can only be a good thing for mankind. More connected people means greater resources, more information, and more sheer potential for every person on the planet. It will be an interesting race to watch, but in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins.