PayPal has teamed with the SETI Institute and the Space Tourism Society to start preparations for the coming upheavals of Solar System commerce. Having whetted their teeth on global commerce, PayPal is looking forward to the challenge of figuring out how to let John or Jill check their balance when they are living on Mars or visiting the Orbital Technologies commercial space station. It's answer is PayPal Galactic.
This effort is not as premature as it may seem. The true challenge of an interplanetary economy is not exchange rates, but time lag. Younger readers will not remember when we worked on cash and checks, and wiring funds was something you would do once or twice a decade. Even these required a decent telecommunications system to work cleanly.
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To reach out to space with today's expectations on how commerce should run is a difficult problem. At present we have the luxury of a communications system that can reach nearly any part of our globe in seconds. Among other things, this means that financial records and accounts, payments and debits, can be tracked more or less real-time, regardless of what form of commerce is being performed.
Is there really a problem here? The worst possible communications lag (light-speed) within the solar system out to Saturn is about an hour and a half, when Jupiter and Saturn are at conjunction. While it is true that lag would not be a problem, the cost per bit of sending signals dedicated to commerce is likely to be large. It is when the cost of carrying out commerce is large that local and black markets take hold. Sometimes these serve a real purpose, but more often they feed market inequities.
It is pretty clear that the information that the internet keeps about itself is going to have to be distributed, at least to each planet/asteroid, so that a laptop on Mars doesn't have to trigger a request to Earth to determine someone's IP number (or equivalent) located near Earth's L2 Lagrange point. There's also the requirement for shuffling a great deal of infrastructural data between various locations in the Solar System, particularly if Earth's public internet is to be part of the interplanetary internet.
We have a benchmark from the Galileo orbiter that was launched in 1989 and reached Jupiter in 1995. Although it did not successfully open, Galileo's high-gain 4.8 m (16 ft) antenna was intended to enable a 134 kbs data link from Jupiter to Earth with around 20 watts of RF power.
Using today's compression and variable data-rate technologies, this is probably about 1 to 2 Mbs, still not a dramatic rate for an entire planet. (By the way, this requires an Earth antenna costing somewhere between US$500 million to $1 billion and tens of millions to operate each year.) Fortunately, in the early days most of this infrastructural data will be sent from Earth to the remainder of the network, as Earth stations can use a lot of power to achieve a huge data rate.
Whatever form PayPal Galactic takes, the unavoidable time gaps between a transaction on one planet and the updating of the data files on another will offer opportunities for gaming (ok, defrauding) the system. This sort of dishonesty can be ameliorated by access protocols, so it will be interesting to see if PayPal Galactic comes up with methods as simple and transparent as they use here on Earth.
In addressing issues surrounding the implementation of a universal space payment system, the initiative will draw on leaders in the space industry to tackle questions about the commercialization of space. As well as envisioning what form a standard currency for a cashless interplanetary society would look like (credits seem to be the favored unit among science fiction writers), the program will seek to answer questions about how banks will need to adapt and what regulations will be required.
“We may not answer these questions today or even this year, but one thing is clear, we won't be using cash in space," says PayPal President David Marcus. "PayPal has already pushed payments into the Internet, onto phones and across terrestrial borders. We look forward to pushing payments from our world to the next, and beyond."
Source: PayPal GalacticView gallery - 3 images