Google’s set to invest billions in satellite connectivity, but what’s its real end game?

Google(s goog) and Facebook(S fb)’s race to spread connectivity to underserved parts of the world continues: according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and Space News, Google is about to get into the satellite game.

The WSJ reported on the weekend that Google planned to spend between $1 and 3 billion on a huge constellation of relatively low-altitude satellites, starting with 180 small satellites.

The Jersey connection

The paper reported that the venture is being headed up by Greg Wyler, the erstwhile founder of satellite communications outfit O3b Networks, in which Google is also a shareholder. According to its sources, both Wyler and O3b’s former chief technology officer have joined Google, as have employees of another satellite company called Space Systems/Loral.

It looks as if Google’s efforts will run through a company that’s registered on the island of Jersey off the U.K. The company is called L5 or WorldVu Satellites and has, according to Space News, apparently picked up some Ku-band radio spectrum that was previously assigned to a failed venture called SkyBridge. This spectrum can be used to provide global satellite broadband backhaul (as long as the satellites don’t interfere with other local holders of the same spectrum in various countries), and WorldVu’s regulatory filings promise services commencing in late 2019.

The Space News report states that O3b’s chief technology officer, Brian Holz, has moved across to L5/WorldVu/Google, and suggests Wyler has done the same. It therefore appears that WorldVu and the Google project referred to by the WSJ are one and the same, though an “industry official” quoted by Space News said last week that Google’s involvement in WorldVu “remains speculative at this point.”

Mysterious model

Google’s investment is, the WSJ said, part of its drive to connect the billions of people in emerging markets who currently can’t get online. The company’s plans also involve drones (Google bought Titan Aerospace in April) and balloons (Project Loon). Facebook is on a similar mission with its initiative, again hoping to use drones and satellites to spread connectivity.

However, the unresolved issue is who will pay for all this infrastructure down the line. It’s all very well for these immensely wealthy companies to chuck some boxes into the sky now, but running them over the years will be expensive. What’s the business model?

As Mark Zuckerberg recently explained in an paper, Facebook is currently making headway in setting up partnerships with mobile carriers in emerging markets that see Facebook offered for free, effectively as a taster that then encourages people to pay for the mobile internet. That approach depends on local net neutrality law, but it is effective. However, that’s all about using existing carriers – with these new networks they’re setting up, will Google and Facebook themselves become carriers?

Where’s the money?

If they do so in areas that already have mobile broadband, they will be in competition with local carriers. If they deploy where local carriers haven’t, then they may discourage local rollouts and seriously hurt the long-term sustainability (and perhaps the very existence) of local infrastructure.

The only reference to access plans in Zuckerberg’s recent paper states:

“Relatively cheap devices already exist that can receive signals from the sky and broadcast wi-fi to mobile phones. These take the form of simple and durable boxes, and can become cheaper and capable of handling more kinds of signals over time. Even if everyone doesn’t own one, someone in a village or community still may – a local store that wants to attract customers, a community hub or non-governmental organizations working in the area. Civil society organizations and governments would be ideal for disseminating these units throughout communities in developing countries.”

That sounds an awful lot like delivering connectivity, or at least access terminals, for free. This is admirable in many ways, but realistically speaking someone somewhere has to pay for all this. Are we talking governments and civil society organizations paying Google and Facebook? End-users paying them? Local carriers paying them as wholesalers? Google and Facebook just sucking up the cost?

A fundamental issue with developing markets is that, generally speaking, poor people who don’t already use mobile broadband avoid it because they don’t have enough money. Even assuming that Google and Facebook want to offer free connectivity because they want to capture a generation of eyeballs and become the funnel for all that lovely future ad revenue, they’d have to wait a very long time before they see a return on their investment.

Basically, all this activity is technologically fascinating and may well end up connecting millions of those who need it, but the end game is far from clear. If these plans are sustainable, they must have core elements that we don’t know about yet.