TESLA chief executive Elon Musk attends the Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory groundbreaking ceremony in China in January. REUTERS
Elon Musk has done it again. Just when we think the South African-born entrepreneur has no more cards up his sleeve, he amazes the world once again with a new and mind-blowingly amazing concept.

Musk’s company, SpaceX, has just received the go-ahead from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US to launch a fleet of internet-providing satellites into orbit.

The satellites, which will orbit at a height of around 550km above the Earth’s surface, will form part of a global mesh called Starlink, which will encompass the earth and provide high-speed internet to areas around the globe directly from the sky.

Development of the Starlink concept began in 2015, and two test satellites have already been launched. The company aims to launch a second set of test units in late 2019, followed by the first fully-operational commercial fleet comprising of 1600 satellites by 2020.

The aim of the project is to ultimately launch a constellation of 12000 satellites into orbit by the mid-2020s. The total cost of the project will be around $10 billion (R144.68bn).

Devices on the ground, like phones and computers, will connect to the Starlink network via a special modem designed to communicate with the satellites, which SpaceX say will cost under $200.

The Starlink satellites will be equipped with thrusters which will enable them to move out of the way if they detect a possible collision with another satellite or space debris. This was added in response to concerns raised by companies like Kepler Communications, that the large number of Starlink satellites will endanger their own.

The Starlink concept was originally proposed by Musk to address the global demand for low-cost, fast internet. If it succeeds, the concept will completely transform global communications by making internet access available to the masses, especially in underserved areas and countries where the infrastructure is poor.

The long-term impact of cheap and reliable internet access cannot be over-emphasised.

Here in South Africa, for example, one of the major obstacles to economic growth is the poor infrastructure and high cost of data.

For example, my internet-based business, which is headquartered in a Durban suburb, is a street away from a fibre line but is unable to get fibre internet. The best we can get is a 4megabit per second line which, if we are lucky, gives us 25% of that speed on a good day.

Additionally, there are regular outages, making work impossible.

Today, everything relies on a good internet connection, and small and large businesses alike are doing more business online than ever before. From email and other modes of communication to online marketing and ecommerce, businesses cannot do without a fast, reliable internet connection.

Additionally, voice calls are now increasingly being done via apps like WhatsApp and Facetime, both of which use data rather than a voice line.

Schools and other educational institutes have also become more reliant on fast internet, thanks to the convenience of e-learning, which enables people who do not have access to a school, university or other institute, to learn from the comfort of their homes and places of work.

The entertainment industry has also created a surge in demand for fast internet due to streaming services like Netflix, Apple Music and Spotify.

Yet, internet in South Africa remains slow, unreliable and expensive.

Starlink could be the ideal solution not just for South Africans, but for people all over the world who struggle with poor internet and high prices.

And since the Starlink concept does not require any ground-based communications towers and telephone lines, people in the remotest areas, completely cut off from national telecoms grids, will also be able to access the internet.

It will be a true revolution.

One of the long-term effects of Starlink will be that ground-based telephone lines and cellphone towers will eventually become a thing of the past. All telecommunications will take place in the sky.

Although it will provide a number of benefits, Starlink does pose some serious concerns. For example, the economic down side to the Starlink concept is that many telecoms service providers will likely go out of business, resulting in massive job losses. It is not difficult to see millions of consumers opting in for a service that is fast, cheap and reliable, provided it keeps its promise.

In such a case, the masses will definitely opt in for the service, and if it further proves to be a viable solution for businesses, then that will undoubtedly be the death-knell for telecoms companies.

Of course, there are also concerns around SpaceX having a monopoly on global communications. There really is no answer to that at this stage, since there currently aren’t any worthy competitors.

Although Amazon has expressed an intent to launch its own network of global internet satellites, it has not come up with anything tangible as yet.

At any rate, it is going to be a serious challenge for Amazon or anyone else to compete with SpaceX because, after all, these guys own the rockets.

* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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