The FCC just gave Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite broadband plan the thumbs-up in a 5-0 vote released on Thursday. This is the first approval for a U.S.-licensed company to implement a network of satellites for broadband services.
The plan involves launching 4,425 satellites that will work together to blanket the globe with broadband internet. In order to fulfill the deal, SpaceX will have to launch half of the satellites within six years.
The application was never in doubt after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a memo last month saying “I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans.”
Elon Musk is clearly elated about the news, after last month he tweeted:
Today’s Falcon launch carries 2 SpaceX test satellites for global broadband. If successful, Starlink constellation will serve least served.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 21, 2018
The logistics of the SpaceX satellite broadband plan
The “satellite” constellation, named Starlink, will feature over 12,000 satellites once it’s completed. The first phase, which will consist of the aforementioned 4,425 satellites is expected to be completed by 2024. These satellites will fly at an altitude range of 1,110 – 1,325 kilometers and will broadcast in the Ka and Ku bands.
The second phase, which will consist of 7,518 satellites, is expected to fly at an altitude of 340 kilometers and will broadcast in the V band. This phase will most likely be completed somewhere around 2030.
The SpaceX satellite broadband plan also includes a section on de-commissioning satellites once they reach their lifespan (about 5 to 7 years).
According to documents filed with the FCC in late 2017, “satellites will de-orbit by propulsively moving to a disposal orbit from which they will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere within approximately one year after completion of their mission.” This process will reportedly be much faster than similar de-orbiting procedures available today.
What the SpaceX satellite broadband plan means for you
The plan aims to provide low-cost satellite broadband internet to places around the world where towers can’t be built or wired internet won’t reach. The plan also intends to provide competitive pricing for consumers in urban areas.
SpaceX has set itself a business challenge of implementing the equipment that will need to be installed in consumer’s homes to no more than $200 USD. For right now though, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell says:
“The project remains in the design phase as the company seeks to tackle issues related to user-terminal cost.”
Yet SpaceX will have to hurry it along at least a little bit. Six years is not a long time to cross everything off the checklist, and the FCC isn’t budging on that timeline.
Elon Musk said that the profits from the SpaceX satellite broadband plan will help to fund his Mars transport plans as well as The Boring Company’s tunneling projects.
What the competition has to say
SpaceX is not the only company looking to develop an array of satellites around the globe. Around the same time as Elon Musk first developed plans for Starlink, Richard Branson also announced investments in OneWeb, which aims to provide a similar array of satellites. Space Norway AS and Telesat Canada are two more companies that are vying for the spectrum in space.
The main concerns that these companies voice over the constellation proposed by SpaceX are space cluttering and spectrum hogging.
While space cluttering was already addressed by the company in the form of a structured de-orbiting process, spectrum hogging is a completely different story.
Many regulators are proposing new rules on satellites in space in order to remediate the problem of one company taking up too much of the available spectrum.
FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel said in a statement that:
“Despite the revolutionary activity in our atmosphere, the regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape these efforts are dated. They were designed for a time when going to space was astronomically expensive and limited to the prowess of our political superpowers.”