Networking

SpaceX plan for global satellite internet service approved by FCC

SpaceX is seeking to create a 4,425-satellite broadband network that the FCC believes will provide internet to underserved parts of America and the rest of the world.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • In spite of numerous complaints from other satellite companies, the FCC hailed the SpaceX Starlink satellite internet plan as the first of its kind.
  • The FCC mandated that at least half of the Starlink satellites must be in orbit within 6 years.

The FCC has put its weight behind a plan by aerospace manufacturer SpaceX to cover large swathes of the United States with broadband internet through a large constellation of satellites, according to an official document released Thursday.

The plan, named "Starlink" by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, was heavily criticized by a number of satellite companies, including OneWeb, Telesat, and ViaSat, for a variety of reasons. The companies were concerned about the interference caused by such a massive constellation of new satellites in a space that is already crowded with many objects. According to the FCC authorization memorandum, they even filed petitions to deny theSpaceX Application.

They also expressed worry about SpaceX's plan for the falling orbital debris that will inevitably come from their proposal, and were even backed up by NASA on the issue, according to the memorandum.

"The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also raises the general concern, mainly in response to SpaceX's satellite constellation, that NGSO applicants seeking to deploy a large number of satellites (i.e., over 4,000) may need to ensure a higher degree of reliability in their post-mission disposal operations than NASA's current 90% reliability standard," the FCC wrote in the memorandum.

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But SpaceX assured their competitors and NASA that it would fully comply with any FCC rulings on the issue, provide updates to the debris plan closer to the launch date, would share the location data of their satellites with other companies and "has designed its spacecraft with the capability to avoid potential collisions, which it can use as necessary to ensure safe operating distances," as noted in the memorandum.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel attached a statement to the memorandum addressing the issue of orbital debris and other problems that may hinder activities in space.

"A next-generation space race is unfolding. However, this rush to develop new space opportunities requires new rules," Rosenworcel said in the statement. "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."

Rosenworcel added: "Today, the risk of debris-generating collusions is reasonably low. But they've already happened—and as more actors participate in the space industry and as more satellites of smaller size that are harder to track are launched, the frequency of these accidents is bound to increase. Unchecked, growing debris in orbit could make some regions of space unusable for decades to come."

Despite the complaints, the FCC hailed the decision to approve the plan as a massive step forward and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai personally praised the idea in February, highlighting how the move will help rural communities gain greater access to the internet.

"To bridge America's digital divide, we'll have to use innovative technologies. Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach," Pai said. "If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies."

CEO Musk wrote on Twitter that the "Starlink constellation will serve least served" and SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell told TechCrunch that their plan will create "a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected."

According to the memorandum, SpaceX will need to have at least 50% of its satellites "in the assigned orbits, and operate them in accordance with the station authorization no later than March 29, 2024."

SpaceX petitioned for more time, claiming the deadline would require "a launch cadence of more than 60 satellites per month, beginning on the day the Commission grants a license, which would be impractical, and that deployment of its full constellation is not necessary to allow it to commence delivery of broadband service."

The FCC denied their petition for a waiver, but left the door open for SpaceX to submit another waiver request once it had a better understanding of how much time it needed to get all of the satellites into orbit.

SpaceX launched test versions of the satellites in February and hopes to eventually offer a subscription-based internet service.

Also see

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Image: SpaceX

About Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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