Branson vs. Musk: A space race with lawyers

Low Earth satellites war

Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. Richard Branson wants to create space tourism. Both, however, are engaged in a new space race that could involve as many lawyers as rocket scientists.

Branson is a partner in OneWeb, a company that is planning to launch a constellation of 648 satellites to provide fast Internet access globally. The satellites would be much closer to Earth, cutting down on lag times. OneWeb's partners include Intelsat and Qualcomm. It raised $500 million and signed a deal with Airbus to build the satellites, and CEO Greg Wyler said the whole venture could cost $2.5 billion. OneWeb hopes to launch the first satellites in 2017 on Russian rockets, and the company would sell its access to traditional telecom companies that would resell it to customers.

Musk's SpaceX wants to do the same thing. His company is busy hiring for a new satellite division in Seattle, and SpaceX hopes to launch 4,000 satellites on its own rockets. Rather than sell the service to telecoms, SpaceX may end up competing against them and sell directly to consumers. Google and Fidelity have invested $1 billion in the venture, even though OneWeb's Wyler used to work at Google on an Internet satellite project.

It's getting ugly up there.

A legal space race is brewing between Elon Musk and Richard Branson.
Getty Images

Can both companies play in the same space, literally? Richard Branson has said there isn't enough bandwidth for both, and Intelsat, a OneWeb partner, has expressed concern that SpaceX satellites could run into its own equipment. SpaceX replied that's nearly impossible.

Yet both see profits spending billions of dollars to bring billions of people online.

"About half the world is unconnected today," said Wyler. He said the OneWeb constellation of satellites will be 700 miles up, compared with more than 22,000 miles for most satellites. Communication speeds will be "36 times faster than the current satellites today." Most importantly, OneWeb claims it has priority in reusing the spectrum it needs to run the system because it filed first with international regulators. "We have all the regulatory and spectrum rights that are required to bring the system to fruition."

As for anyone else trying to do the same thing, such as SpaceX, Wyler said OneWeb would be first in line. "It doesn't mean others can't use spectrum, that just means they have to be respectful and not interfere with prior users."

SpaceX did not comment for this story, but it appears the company sees the situation very differently. A report from the same international regulators suggests filing first doesn't guarantee priority. Instead, whoever launches first and coordinates with those already up in space is first in line. SpaceX hopes to be first.

An unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, June 28, 2015.
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The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 10, 2015.
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The company has filed with the FCC to experimentally use the same exact spectrum OneWeb wants, at least over the U.S. The FCC should rule on that any day now. OneWeb investor Intelsat filed a challenge to SpaceX's application, and lawyers for both sides are hard at work. Why does SpaceX only want an experimental license? It may want to test out whether a huge investment in a new satellite system is worth it. After all, past efforts have failed.

Wyler agrees that execution remains the biggest challenge. "This stuff is very hard, very complex, and it's very easy to fantasize about all the things it could do and very hard to kick out all the fantasy," he said. Wyler believes OneWeb will succeed by being focused on the achievable goals. "We're really very boring about our approach."

There's nothing boring, however, about the battle to win the race to dominate global Internet access. Watch this space.