The world – at least that part of the world which is reported in the news – is a pretty bewildering place. Cartoons and killings. Who would have thought those two words would ever be used in the same sentence? (Not to mention, Paris..?). But technology on the other hand has been that one mostly immutable something that politicians and radicals haven’t yet been able to propagandize or otherwise hijack.

Yes, some technologies have been weaponized and there have been other misappropriations along the way; liberties taken, and some lies told. But generally speaking technology – or better, the science behind the technology – has been that one totem that we’ve all looked to for truth.

And then somewhere along the way business majors – spawned on some institutional red tide – unable to exist otherwise, transmogrified into operationally parasitically useless organisms where they then entered and befouled the once clean and orderly world of technology.

That particular analogy might be new but I am not the only one in technology who feels that way about business majors. “Business majors,” as a colleague once frivolously remarked, “I drop two in the toilet every morning.”

I like that kind of truthfulness. And it is something you’ll never get from a business major. They don’t know the truth. In fact, they are so far from the truth that they don’t even know the right questions to ask to get to the truth.

Witness the just published article entitled “Revealed: Elon Musk’s plan to Build a Space Internet” by BloombergBusinessweek Technology. After having read it I can’t tell if all the technical errors are just the maligned output of some business major posing as a technology writer or if the errors are deliberate red herrings generated from Musk’s side of the fence.

Either way, the misinformation – deliberate or otherwise – shouldn’t seem unsurprising given the article is a product of a business technology publication; two other words that probably don’t belong together in the same sentence. But even so, shouldn’t there still be some journalistic integrity? Like whatever happened to fact checking?

Anyway, his purported plan – as given in this article – is to launch hundreds of low-earth orbit satellites to speed up communications and provide internet services to the poorer parts of the planet. The article is riddled with so many errors as to make someone with any experience or knowledge on the subject shake their heads. I am not an expert but I learned enough ten years ago when I spent a year and a half working for Loral Spacenet in Rockville, Maryland that satellites are damned expensive to build, launch, and maintain.

And satellites aren’t just the higher-flying cousins of those cheap mass-produced drones that remote joy-sticking technicians (probably failed business majors) are using to rain hellfire missiles down on unsuspecting tribespeople in far off places like Afghanistan. No. Satellites – cubic inch for inch – are the most complicated series of interdependent instruments ever assembled by man. A typical communications satellite can cost $50-100M. To launch one can cost somewhere (or did) in the vicinity of another $50M. Oh yeah, and then once you get them orbit you’ve got to keep them in orbit. That costs money too. In fact, lots of money.

So hundreds of them? And given those two objectives – internet to poor people and faster internet – just where is that return on investment going to be found? I ask that because earlier on I had an experience that was very big eye opener concerning risk and investment in outer space.

Back in the ’90s Iridium spent $5-6B to launch 66 low-earth orbit satellites only to shortly thereafter go bankrupt; eventually selling off all the company’s assets just a few short years later  – including the birds – for a measly $25M. I was working for Intel at the time but took an invitation to fly out to Washington, DC to interview with them in Foggy Bottom. I turned down their job offer for logistical reasons but it turned out to have been fortuitous as Iridium closed their doors less than 2 years later.

But the risks, the inherent costs and ROI; those are just the broader issues that I took exception with in the article.

Now here are some of the more pickier points that I raised in my reply to this Bloomberg article; saying that I wanted to clear up a couple of their technical mis-hits, as in:

1) Cloud services as a rule do not use satellites for transport. (What!?) Cloud services (aka terrestrial server farms) use traditional land based internet.

2) Satellite internet services are generally special order and used only in places where traditional internet is unavailable. Satellite internet services are much more expensive than land-based fiber or cable.

3) And while light might in fact travel faster in a vacuum. Placing satellites lower to the earth and closer together doesn’t necessarily mean that there are tremendous economies of scale to be gained in speed. This is due to another misconception that signals bounce off of satellites when in fact the signals follow the same paradigm as terrestrial broadcast signals. In that the signal(s) are transmitted from an antenna and received on an antenna of the satellite. The signal then is processed in some fashion – at the very least amplified – before that satellite sends that signal back to a ground station on the earth. The transmit/receive delay is not just one of distance but is also due to the satellite’s transponder’s time to process and then retransmit the signal.

4) Lastly, routing – be it from satellite to ground station or land based router to router – known as ‘hops’, all incur time lags as each hop incurs a processing time penalty.

There is no question that Elon Musk is a genius. And a rich one at that. So why does this recently announced space internet idea make absolutely no sense at all? Once again, where is the ROI? And two, satellites don’t bring any new solution to the table that addresses latency (that’s the time lag of signals transmitted between any two given points).

Oh that’s right. The article said that Elon Musk is going to use a much more sophisticated satellite then those currently in use (and by another order of magnitude nonetheless).

Sounds expensive to me. And once again, where’s that ROI?

PS – Satellite transported internet isn’t a growth industry. In 2006 Loral Spacenet shut down our division for that very self same reason. Byte for byte it costs too damn much to compete with fiber, cable, or now 3G, 4G, or LTE.

So if you want want to provide internet infrastructure in faraway Africa, remote India or rural China. Then the better spent dollar (or rupee) is on a terrestrial based wireless technology.

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