Cautionary Tales of Teledesic and Others Lurk in the Background

What began as a small but promising nexus between space and the sprawling technology incubator known as Silicon Valley has exploded into something much larger with the rush of filings for bandwidth to deploy large constellations of low-orbiting broadband satellites.

Since late November, no fewer than half a dozen registrations have been filed with the International Telecommunication Union for constellations of anywhere between 10 and more than 4,000 satellites. The stampede may have been triggered by rumors of a broadband satellite linkup between technology giant Google and hard-charging rocket maker SpaceX.

Those rumors were substantiated in early January with the disclosure that Google and the financial services firm Fidelity Investments would sink a combined $1 billion in SpaceX, which had just unveiled plans for a 4,000-satellite broadband constellation. That came on the heels of news that Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and chipmaker Qualcomm would be investing an unspecified sum in OneWeb, which plans to offer direct-to-user Internet links via 650 low-orbiting satellites. OneWeb is led by Greg Wyler, founder of O3b Networks, which currently operates a constellation of 12 Internet-trunking satellites in low Earth orbit and plans to deploy more.

Almost overlooked in all this was news that satellite imagery startup Planet Labs, which has deployed dozens of small satellites on a shoestring budget, had raised $95 million in fresh financing. It was a nice vote of confidence following the company’s loss of 26 satellites in an October rocket failure.

The flood of investment capital and the names involved have generated some excitement in the space industry, which would seem to be looking at a bonanza in satellite construction and launch contracts in the not-too-distant future. Even if just one of these proposed mega-constellations comes to fruition, the stimulating effects would be felt far and wide in the space industrial base.

On the other hand, the new gold rush bears striking resemblances to a previous wave of investment in low-orbiting constellations that was driven largely by the telecom boom of the 1990s. The most obvious historical examples are the proposed Teledesic and Skybridge broadband constellations that never came close to getting off the ground but nonetheless fueled investment in often far-fetched launcher concepts and prompted bruising fights over radio spectrum.

Then there were the original Iridium and Globalstar mobile telephony satellite ventures, which managed to deploy their large constellations but were quickly outflanked by a fast-maturing cellular industry and forced into bankruptcy. The experience soured the investment community to satellite projects of all types for the next couple of years.

Much has changed since then, of course. Technological advances have enabled engineers to pack far more capability into smaller and less-costly satellites, the Internet is far more pervasive today than it was 15 years ago — witness the economic might of companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook — and the industrialized world is increasingly data driven. These trends show no signs of abating over the next decade.

Still, the newly proposed constellations face big challenges, including the potential to interfere with established operators, which for some could be a regulatory showstopper, and unprecedented operational complexity. Also unclear is whether global launch capacity will be sufficient to handle even a single mega-constellation — never mind two or more — over a reasonable time period, notwithstanding some of the new commercially focused vehicles being developed by companies like Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch.

These challenges are not insurmountable and some of those now planning mega-constellations have proven track records doing the next-to-impossible. Perhaps more importantly, times and technology have changed dramatically since the late 1990s. But the satellite misadventures of that era remain relevant, and those pursuing mega constellations today would be wise to seek out and heed their lessons.