Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already captured the record for having the most operational satellites in space, with 180 Starlink satellites deployed.
On Monday, the United States-based SpaceX is scheduled to launch 60 more – its second Starlink launch this month. There’s also a third launch on tap for January, with 21 more sets bound for Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
And there might be even more satellites – thousands more – yet to come.
All those Starlink satellites circling high above the Earth are designed to be pieces of a greater whole – an LOE “mega-constellation”.
Unlike high-altitude, high-latency geostationary satellites used by television broadcasters among others, SpaceX’s LOE constellation aims to “deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable”.
If Musk can build it out, he will be positioned to have the most satellite communications customers on Earth – and crucially – the greatest number of broadband customers too.
Fidelity Investments and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have already bet a billion bucks on Musk’s SpaceX, having acquired a stake just shy of 10 percent of the company.
Advocates working to bring broadband to billions of unconnected people around the world see Musk’s effort as a way to close the connectivity divide between the global north and the planet’s least developed regions, where only 19 percent of people had internet access last year, according to the United Nations.
“I think exponential change is possible right now,” said David Hartshorn, CEO of Geeks Without Frontiers, a non-profit organisation that is neutral about which technology connects people to the internet, so long as it gets more of them online.
“Around about now you can get profitable business models … for connectivity for what is referred to as the bottom of the pyramid: those who are currently and stubbornly unconnected, because until recently they’ve been unreachable,” Hartshorn told Al Jazeera.
Industry experts say Musk’s play may not just be about taking a sizable bite out of the terrestrial broadband market, but about Starlink becoming a dominant entrant into what Morgan Stanley predicts will be a $507bn satellite internet and broadband market by 2040.