The first “space race” of the 21st century is on. Only this time it’s not the U.S. versus Russia, it’s Musk versus Branson. Elon Musk versus Richard Branson, that is, as Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s (together with partner Greg Wyler) OneWeb compete to be the first commercial firm to offer low-latency satellite internet service.

Musk vs Branson Satellite Internet "Space Race"

SpaceX’s big plans

Multiple media sources are reporting that orbital vehicle maker SpaceX has recently applied to the Federal Communications Commission for permission to operate a network of satellites to provide Internet service anywhere around the world.

The eventual plan is to build a large network of non-geostationary satellites to offer high-speed broadband Internet at a fraction of the cost of current ISPs, according to the regulatory filing. The firm claimed the satellite network would be capable of reaching stationary and mobile users anywhere on Earth, even in extremely remote locations.

Low latency is the key to success

Although many people are not aware, satellite internet has actually been around for years, but the problem of extreme latency (the gap in time between the satellite receiving a request and responding) has made the technology impractical for near real-time applications such as online games or teleconferencing.

Of note, both Musk and Wyler are planning to get rid of the latency issue by putting satellites in low Earth orbit, which is generally thought of as between 100 to 1,250 miles above the Earth. With a very low Earth orbit, SpaceX and OneWeb should be able to reduce latency from 500 milliseconds to 20 milliseconds, which is close to the average latency from a fiber optic home internet connection in the U.S.

The main problem with the technology is the signal from the low Earth orbit satellites cannot cover as much of the Earth’s surface as satellites in geosynchronous orbits around 22,000 miles up. That means a lot more satellites will be required to offer low-latency internet service to every corner of the globe. In an interview a few months ago, Wyler said that OneWeb will construct a network of close to 700 satellites to get the job done. Musk has said that SpaceX is planning a network of up to 4,000 small satellites.

Elon Musk and Richard Branson satellite internet partnership in the works?

Experts point out that there is also the issue of telecommunications — signal bandwidth — to be considered. Apparently that is one area where OneWeb has an advantage over SpaceX. Wyler owns Teledesic’s old slice of the wireless spectrum, so he’s ready to go.

OneWeb backer Richard Branson also points outs there’s not enough spectrum to go around.

“Greg has the rights, and there isn’t space for another network—like there physically is not enough space,” Branson noted in a recent interview. “If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I would say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”

Of note, Musk has mentioned the possibility of using laser-based transmission to avoid EM spectrum bandwidth licensing issues, but it’s really an unproven technology and last month’s FCC application did not mention it.