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Google Closing in on Satellite Industry Debut

By Caleb Henry | May 30, 2014
      Google Skybox

      Google building. Photo: Neon Tommy (Flickr)

      [Via Satellite 05-30-2014] Google is most well known for its Web search engine, but the company’s recent behavior has fueled rumors that an entrance into the satellite industry is in the near future. Google’s play in satellite could come in the form of acquiring Skybox Imaging (according to recent reports and industry buzz), but in any case, its participation in the satellite industry would come with a purpose central to the tech giant.

      “Virtually all of their revenue is searching or ad-related,” Kerry Rice, managing director of equity research for Internet and digital media at Needham and Company, told Via Satellite. “Having said that, the things that are on the periphery for Google are alternative energy projects and robotics. I would say the next thing they would probably get into would be the Internet-of-Things, like more home automation and connecting homes and lifestyles to different Android-based devices.”

      Google Loon, a high altitude balloon project designed to bring Internet to unconnected areas, could be the company’s next step in capitalizing on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Google said Titan Aerospace, a recently acquired UAS manufacturer, will work closely with the Loon team. Still, providing greater connectivity to unreached areas could require something above the stratosphere.

      “You would be able to get a lot of good content over the U.S. when it comes to imaging, but when talking about providing bandwidth and imaging the whole Earth, you have to have satellites. You are not always going to get permission to fly these atmospheric UAS’ over any country,” said Michael Blades, aerospace and defense senior industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan.

      Geopolitical boundaries could be Google’s reason for looking above the Kármán line for solutions. Regardless of intent, not every nation is comfortable with small U.S.-built objects flying overhead. Loon might only accomplish a fraction of what Google aspires to do, and with Facebook publically detailing combined drone-satellite connectivity plans, Google is not the only company looking to expand its reach.

      “Both companies [Google and Facebook] were interested for the same reason: to get bandwidth to customers who don’t have access for free, because really, what do both companies make money off of when it comes to the Internet? It’s advertising, not providing the service itself,” said Blades.

      Skybox Imaging, the company of speculated interest to Google, could prove to be a strong pair with Titan Aerospace. Skybox has repeatedly said that they are, above all, an information company first, satellite company second . Though not a provider of connectivity, the company’s expertise in software could be very appealing to Google, and furthermore the decision to keep the SkySats green speaks Google’s environmental language.

      “I think they would be very interested in that, and the reason being that [Skybox’s] business model is to get cheaper satellites in space to do what the larger satellites do now by an order of magnitude [less],” said Blades. “What something like Skybox and Titan would provide them is the ability to have people sign up for a service where they can get real-time information, real-time imaging and real-time pictures of the Earth.”

      Already known for Google Earth, acquiring an imagery start up — be it Skybox Imaging or something else — would give the company better control of its own services. Rice believes this would be an attractive entrance into satellite for the company.

      “I think the most applicable near-term application is their geospatial applications, like maps,” he said. “They are the leader in consumer map use and if this would enable them to enhance their maps, both for remote locations or for less traveled locations, or just in general gives them a way to improve those, I think that would be the most near term application.”

      Some of Google’s recent hires have been viewed as indicators of the company’s satellite ambitions. Brian Holz, former executive VP and CTO of O3b Networks is now a director at Google. He brings with him additional experience from previous roles at Ball Aerospace and Orbital Sciences. iDirect’s CTO Dave Bettinger was also recently hired after working for the VT System’s subsidiary for more than 18 years.

      Having observed Google’s behavior, Blades said he could see the company owning a full constellation in the not too distant future.

      “I think they could, and I think they would want to because it would assure control over it,” he explained. “Right now when you get geospatial services from satellites, you’re going through another company. They would want control of all the content, control of who gets content, and then Google could say how much they want to charge for it.”

      Though Google declined to comment on its interest in the satellite industry, Rice added that the company likes to keep its cards close.

      “Google is open to investing in areas that are not very visible to the average person about the business opportunities, but longer term it makes sense. So on some level we might have to wait and see how they build an application around this technology,” he said.