Elon Musk has no shortage of big ideas. But his goal of building the Internet of the future might be one of the most interesting -- and important.
This week, Musk's SpaceX company is planning to launch its first flight to space to deploy 60 Starlink satellites. Musk cautioned in a tweet that "much will likely go wrong," but said that in order for the company's Starlink Internet service to provide minimal coverage, SpaceX will need to launch six more missions with 60 satellites each.
Musk said that he hopes to launch the first satellites on Wednesday, but they'll largely be used for testing to see what needs to be worked out for a future launch. If all goes well, SpaceX could launch satellites ready to provide service later this year and get its commercial service up and running within the next few years.
The move is the first step in a much broader and far more ambitious attempt by Musk and SpaceX to build a full-fledged satellite-based Internet service in a low-earth orbit.
Succeeding in the satellite Internet business could be a massive opportunity for SpaceX. There are still billions of people around the globe who are not connected to the Internet. And even those in developed countries are always seeking alternatives. If SpaceX can make Starlink a reality, it could become the go-to service for billions of people. And that alone could drive SpaceX's business.
But actually getting there is no small task -- even if it could transform the way people around the globe access the Internet.
SpaceX's program, called Starlink, centers on the concept that a "constellation" of satellites could orbit Earth and beam Internet back down to the ground at broadband speeds. If successful, the move could bring Internet to the billions of people around the globe who currently don't have Internet access. It could also provide a budget-friendly alternative to developed countries that get Internet access through cable and wireless carrier companies.
The process isn't simple.
Firstly, SpaceX needs to have a successful launch this week to see how it does at launching its rocket and deploying the satellites into space. Then it needs to do it over and over again to get as many satellites into space as possible. As of this writing, the company has permits to deploy 12,000 satellites into space over time. At that point, the constellation will be established and Internet access should be available in most parts of the world.
Truth be told, Musk's vision for a Starlink future isn't unique. There are already companies like Viasat and HughesNet flying satellites around Earth and beaming Internet access to the ground. However, those companies have deployed only a few big satellites at much higher distances above the Earth to deliver Internet access. Musk's plan involves far more satellites at a much closer distance.
That should translate to faster speeds than what you'd get from other satellites. But since the satellites need to be closer, it also means there needs to be far more of them to deliver Internet access to wide areas.
Musk isn't the only one who believes there's a future in satellite-based Internet access. A company called OneWeb, as well as Jeff Bezos' own Blue Origin, are also eyeing Internet access via constellation satellites. And needless to say, the race is on.
But before you get too excited to boot up your favorite browser with Starlink, you'll need to do some waiting.
If all goes well, Starlink might be in our lives in many important ways in future years. Musk has said several times that if Starlink works with Earth, it's reasonable to bring the technology to Mars and use Starlink as the planet's Internet service when humans eventually get there.