Google & SpaceX Satellite Sleight of Hand

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It seems that the latest PR trick in Silicon Valley is to pretend that you are going to deploy vast infrastructure in a new area unconnected to your business.

Google is a past master at this. You see surprisingly few articles in the media about the issues that Google is really worried about, such as privacy and Competition laws. Why is that? It may have something to do with the vast PR operation to constantly feed unquestioning journalists with stories about the latest wild idea that will change the world. Our scepticism seems well-founded because none of them seem to materialise. Driverless cars? Internet goggles? Internet by balloons drones and satellites? All quietly buried once the usefulness of the story has passed.

Now SpaceX has jumped on that bandwagon. SpaceX will be launching a fleet of spy satellites for Google called Skybox Imaging. These satellites will take very high quality high resolution pictures of the Earth at “sub-meter” scale for insertion into the Google advertising platform. Nothing to do with Internet access.

Some people might object to their property and person being imaged at this level from space without consent. The recent Google investment in SpaceX was all about funding the rockets to launch these spy satellites that are in full scale production, but no mention was made of that.

What we DO now read in the press is breathless coverage of the notion that SpaceX, a rocket company, is going to turn itself into a telco by launching 4,000 internet satellites. We have covered in these pages before the myriad reasons why these low-earth orbiting constellations will fail, and some of the major space companies like SES and EUTELSAT have even committed to writing these reasons in regulated filings (which carry more weight that internet rumours about private companies).

To recap – i) It is impossible for them to use necessary spectrum whilst avoiding harmful interference with the World’s geostationary satellite fleet, ii) the switching required between hundreds os satellites is practically impossible iii) the ground equipment doesn’t exist at an affordable price, iv) the manufacturing processes don’t exist to build this many satellites fast enough.

But what is the truth of the matter? Well, it seems that SpaceX (a private company whose statements carry no regulatory weight or obligation to be factually correct) has submitted a filing, at no material cost to the FCC to seek permission to test a tiny satellite in 2016. These microsats are already being tested by university programmes around the world and cost a few hundred thousand dollars at most. There is nothing new here and certainly no financial commitment of any significance. Yet the newspaper headlines garnered as a result are wildly disproportionate, and as a result, no-one is writing about the privacy and competition issues that Google really faces.

It’s a clever PR strategy and it’s a surprise that the editors of the newspapers of record continue to allow their pages to fall for it.

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