As of January 2018, 46 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have Internet access, but the rocket scientists from Stanford University and MIT who created a startup called Astranis want to change that. CEO and co-founder John Gedmark said that “Traditional satellites cost hundreds of millions to build,” but “These cost tens of millions.” The company’s satellites are about the size of a mini-fridge, while traditional satellites are closer to the size of a small car, weighing just 300kgs. Astranis is not seeking to operate its satellites. Instead, the company aims to sell them to existing satellite telecoms as smaller, cheaper substitutes for older satellites that might cost hundreds of millions to build and insure. The company put the project into gear on March 1, receiving a vote of confidence from venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which announced a $13.5 million investment in the project. In this new age space race led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Astranis is taking a different approach than other space companies by focusing on lowering the cost.
Learning from the past
Satellites have traditionally been very expensive, and the disadvantages have to be weighed against the many benefits from satellites. According to NASA, the problem is that to reach the entire world from low Earth orbit, these companies need hundreds or thousands of satellites, raising the system’s cost. Previous attempts at building low Earth orbit networks ended in bankruptcy, including the Bill Gates-backed Teledesic and satellite-phone companies Globalstar and Iridium. According to Business Insider, SpaceX and similar companies, like Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, are trying to reduce the costs of launching rockets, which lowers the cost of building such an Internet network. However, it is not yet clear whether these companies could offer Internet access at rates that subscribers can afford.
While there are risks both on the business side and the practical side of actually launching the satellites, the Astranis team may be on course to change the mold of launching satellites with their smaller devices. Andreessen Horowitz has full confidence in the Astranis team. “Lots of companies understand the software or networking side, but these guys really understood the space side,” says Martin Casado. a partner with Andreessen Horowitz and director on the Astranis board.
The Astranis team is sticking to geosynchronous orbit, where satellites are able to stay in place over a single location by orbiting Earth at the same speed as the planet is turning. The company believes that its smaller, cheaper satellites may bring the costs for end-users into the same price range as cellular data.
What does this mean for consumers?
For consumers this would mean an inexpensive service. The magic number will be close to the industry’s targeted $75 per megabit per second per month for dedicated bandwidth, says Gedmark. He further states that, “If you can get that number you can get a lot more people online. The real goal is to get down to tens of dollars per megabit per second per month.” Mini satellites could be the answer to providing Internet to over 4 billion people.