News Feature | April 25, 2017

Is Apple Trying To Break Into Satellite Internet?

By Jof Enriquez
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq

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Apple has reportedly hired two former executives of Google's defunct satellite internet unit, which suggests that Apple may be planning to get a similar project off the ground and up into orbit.

Citing unnamed sources familiar with Apple's plans and actions, Bloomberg reports that Apple in recent weeks has recruited Alphabet's John Fenwick, who led Google's spacecraft operations, and his colleague Michael Trela, the former head of satellite engineering at Google. The two executives are said to have joined a new hardware team led by Greg Duffy, co-founder of internet security camera maker Dropcam, which was acquired by Alphabet company Nest in 2014.

Fenwick and Trela joined Google in 2014 when the search giant bought their satellite company, SkyBox Imaging, which Google sold to rival Planet Labs this year. Google, alongside Fidelity, had invested $1 billion in Elon Musk's space transportation company SpaceX, in lieu of building out its own satellite division, but now focuses on delivering internet services via its hot air balloon project (Loon) and Google Fiber unit, according to The Verge

Despite having zero track record in satellites, Apple seems keen on the promising satellite internet delivery market, and hiring experts in this technology is a good start. Duffy’s role at Apple working under Dan Riccio, who leads Apple’s hardware and augmented reality teams, also indicates that the company could be building some of this tech itself, according to Bloomberg. Alternatively, the new hires could be working on related areas, such as near-space technology, including drone imaging, high-bandwidth radio transceivers, and high-altitude balloons.

Bloomberg also says the tech giant better known for iPhones and iPads has talked with Boeing about investing in the aerospace company's planned network of 1,000 low-Earth-orbit satellites, set to deliver very high data-rate V-band satellite broadband services.

Some industry observers at the Satellite 2017 conference last month speculated that this proposed V-band network is to be funded by Apple, according to Tim Farrar, a consultant at TMF Associates. He wrote that Apple, like Facebook and Google, "is clearly trying to find the next big thing" and that it's "not hard to discern why Apple might want to consider a satellite constellation," considering that SpaceX projects its satellite internet business to bring in more than $30 billion in revenue by 2025.

Besides SpaceX, other companies in the race to put up next-generation satellite internet broadband networks include satellite industry pioneer Inmarsat, which has an existing alliance with Boeing for the first high-speed Ka-band broadband network to span the world, and the recently merged Intelsat and OneWeb companies.