Apple has joined SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and other companies in targeting the market for satellite internet services, Bloomberg News reported today.
Bloomberg quoted unidentified people familiar with the work as saying that the California-based company has a secret team working on technologies that it could use to beam internet services directly to devices, bypassing wireless networks. The effort is reportedly still in its early stages and may not necessarily come to fruition.
Apple did not immediately respond to GeekWire’s inquiries about the report.
The technologies could be used to transmit data to a user’s smartphone or other device, or to link mobile devices together without a traditional wireless network, Bloomberg reported. They could also improve location tracking for mapping and navigation apps.
Bloomberg said it wasn’t clear whether Apple would pursue the development of a dedicated satellite constellation, or piggyback on satellites that are already in orbit or in the works.
If all the known plans for mega-constellations come to pass, tens of thousands of satellites could be sent into low Earth orbit, or LEO, over the next decade to widen internet access for billions of people who are currently underserved when it comes to broadband.
SpaceX alone has proposed launching up to 42,000 satellites for its Starlink broadband network. More than 100 of the flat-panel satellites — developed and built at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash. — have already been put into orbit for testing. Dozens more could be launched within the next month.
OneWeb has also started positioning broadband satellites in LEO, with plans to offer limited service for subscribers in the Arctic in late 2020.
Amazon, meanwhile, is laying plans to create a 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper constellation for internet service, to be provided to subscribers and used for facilitating in-house data offerings such as Amazon Web Services. Just this week, the Seattle company said it would be expanding its Project Kuiper team and moving to new offices in Redmond.
Bloomberg reported that Apple has started hiring new software and hardware experts for its satellite service team. It said the team’s leaders are Michael Trela and John Fenwick, former aerospace engineers who played leading roles at Skybox Imaging before it was sold to Google in 2014.
Trela and Fenwick headed up Google’s satellite effort, but left that company in 2017 to join Apple. Even at that time, some sources speculated that the move was part of a plan to partner with Boeing on a satellite broadband project.
The executive who previously led the Apple team, Greg Duffy, left the company in June. But Trela and Fenwick are expanding the effort, Bloomberg quoted its sources as saying.
It’s not clear what Apple’s involvement in the satellite internet market might mean for other players in the mega-constellation race. Some observers are already voicing caution about a potential broadband glut, analogous to what happened with Teledesic, Celestri and SkyBridge in the 1990s. There are also concerns about the effects of a proliferation of satellites on astronomical observations and space traffic management.