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Can Elon Musk Save the Internet?

·5 min read

“Watch the water.” That was our mantra.

A concept image representing undersea cable.
A concept image representing undersea cable.

Source: Christoph Burgstedt / Shutterstock.com

You see, for many years I was an ocean lifeguard on the California coast. To this day, if I’m near the ocean, I am constantly checking the conditions.

A couple days ago, as I was staring out at the ocean at the tip of Baja, Mexico, I noticed a strange set of waves on the horizon. Although Cabo has great waves in the summer, the winter months are much slower… which is why the set of waves I saw rolling in early in the morning caught my attention.

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From my viewpoint at a hotel in San Jose del Cabo, I watched as the bumps of water rolled closer to shore until they eventually reached the sand.

But these weren’t regular waves that had been kicked up from miles away. These waves were more like when water sloshes up against the side of a bathtub. When they met the sand on the beach, it was as if the tide was surging higher.

I watched the ocean rise and push water higher up the beach than it had gone the entire morning. Then the water receded, and the ocean went back to its normal flat, windless state.

It was weird, but I assumed it was a wake from a tanker or just a random occurrence.

About an hour later, I learned about the volcanic eruption that had happened in Tonga, with a resulting tsunami that has since caused damage along South and North American coasts.

Did I see a tsunami?! I think I did, even though here in Baja nothing notable happened. I was probably one of the only people here that even noticed that irregular push of water up the beach early in the morning.

Over in Tonga and the surrounding region, significant damage has been done. According to the Volcanic Explosivity Index, this event is likely the largest volcanic explosion of the 21st century. The initial explosion was heard over 10,000 kilometers away in Fairbanks, Alaska!

Beyond the casualties and ongoing humanitarian rescue efforts currently underway, there is another big problem: Internet and phone connections have been completely cut off for all of Tonga’s residents.

The volcanic eruption apparently severed undersea internet cables, which service the South Pacific island nation. The closest ship that can fix these lines of communication is thousands of miles away, and it could take weeks to repair… possibly much longer if more eruptions occur.

As devastating as this eruption has been so far, it has highlighted a weak point that we have with global communication. And private companies are stepping in with the solution…

Musk’s Starlink Aims to Solve Global Communication

Worldwide, there are over 1.1 million kilometers of undersea cable that carry the information of over 99% of all international internet traffic. This network essentially keeps the global economy running.

A map showing the locations of undersea cable.
A map showing the locations of undersea cable.

Source: cablemap.info

It’s incredible. Even still, there are many people and organizations sounding the alarm about how vulnerable this network is.

These cables can become compromised in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Sharks chewing on them (yes, for real!)

  • Ships’ anchors dropping on them (this is a real concern in the Suez Canal region)

  • Military submarines (from various countries) tapping into cables to intercept sensitive information

  • Commercial fishing operations snagging cables

  • Natural events, such as volcanic eruptions

So what’s the alternative?

Well, right now, there really isn’t any alternative that compares to what the undersea cables provide. But there are companies trying to change that, including Elon Musk’s Starlink.

On Jan. 18, the company is launching 49 satellites, which are being propelled into orbit via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is taking place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is scheduled for 7:04 p.m. EST.

The upcoming launch will be the 36th dedicated Starlink mission for SpaceX, which has launched nearly 2,000 of the broadband internet satellites since 2019. Since that first flight, SpaceX has been steadily growing its Starlink megaconstellation to provide fast, reliable internet service anywhere on Earth, especially in remote and underserved regions. The initial constellation is expected to number about 4,400 satellites.

If you’re curious about when Starlink’s services will be ready… you can actually sign up right now here. The company claims to have internet speeds between 100-200 MB/s, and third-party reviews of the service are favorable.

Although traditional hardline internet services are currently more affordable, more reliable, and faster than satellite internet services, it’s just a matter of time until satellite internet service catches up.

If Musk can get Starlink to disrupt the monopolized telecom industry, more power to him!

But Musk isn’t the only one looking to expand the communication network with satellites…

3 Private Satellite-Internet Companies

Jeff Bezos also has some skin in the game. Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Project Kuiper is launching low-orbit satellites (albeit at a much slower pace) into space with the same goal. Virgin Orbit (NASDAQ:VORB), Richard Branson’s satellite company, is aiming to do the same thing…

There are also a number of private companies working to expand the communication network with satellites.

  • Astranis: “Astranis improves access to internet connectivity by making smaller and more powerful satellites at a fraction of the cost. This approach allows us to build our satellites in 12-18 months, about five times faster than our competitors.”

  • Kepler: “Kepler is using our existing and emerging technology to reshape the satellite communications industry. We develop groundbreaking technology and provide real solution for global gaps in connectivity. We are passionate about helping businesses thrive in an increasingly data-heavy world.”

  • Swarm: “By providing affordable satellite communications services to people and devices in remote regions, Swarm is making data accessible to everyone, everywhere on Earth.”

For satellite internet to be the solution, it’s likely more than one company will have to succeed.

Here at VC Digest, we’ll keep our eye out for exciting opportunities in this space. Stay tuned!

On the date of publication, Cody Shirk did not have (either directly or indirectly) any positions in the securities mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.

By focusing on megatrends that will shape the future, Cody Shirk uncovers generational wealth in the private investing space. To make sure you never miss Venture Capital Digest, click here to subscribe.

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