SpaceX's satellite broadband plans are getting closer to reality. The company is about to launch two demonstration satellites, and it is on track to get the Federal Communications Commission's permission to offer satellite Internet service in the US.
Neither development is surprising, but they're both necessary steps for SpaceX to enter the satellite broadband market. SpaceX is one of several companies planning low-Earth orbit satellite broadband networks that could offer much higher speeds and much lower latency than existing satellite Internet services.
Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed approving SpaceX's application "to provide broadband services using satellite technologies in the United States and on a global basis," a commission announcement said. SpaceX would be the fourth company to receive such an approval from the FCC, after OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat. "These approvals are the first of their kind for a new generation of large, non-geostationary satellite orbit, fixed-satellite service systems, and the Commission continues to process other, similar requests," the FCC said today.
SpaceX's application has undergone "careful review" by the FCC's satellite engineering experts, according to Pai. "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," Pai said.
Separately, CNET reported yesterday that SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch on Saturday will include "[t]he first pair of demonstration satellites for the company's 'Starlink' service."
The demonstration launch is confirmed in SpaceX's FCC filings. One SpaceX filing this month mentions that a secondary payload on Saturday's Falcon 9 launch will include "two experimental non-geostationary orbit satellites, Microsat-2a and -2b."
Those are the two satellites that SpaceX previously said would be used in its first phase of broadband testing.
"These are experimental engineering verification vehicles that will enable the company to assess the satellite bus and related subsystems, as well as the space-based and ground-based phased array technologies," SpaceX told the FCC.
SpaceX originally told the FCC that it might launch these test satellites by the end of 2017, so the launch is slightly later than that optimistic estimate. Longer-term, SpaceX has said that it might begin the launch of operational satellites as early as 2019. Further satellites will be launched in phases, with SpaceX intending to reach full capacity with 4,425 satellites in 2024.
SpaceX has said it will offer speeds of up to a gigabit per second, with latencies between 25ms and 35ms. Those latencies would make SpaceX's service comparable to cable and fiber. Today's satellite broadband services use satellites in much higher orbits and thus have latencies of 600ms or more, according to FCC measurements.
The demonstration satellites will orbit at 511km, although the operational satellites are planned to orbit at altitudes ranging from 1,110km to 1,325km. By contrast, the existing HughesNet satellite network has an altitude of about 35,400km, making for a much longer round-trip time than ground-based networks.
We asked SpaceX for an update on its satellite broadband plans today and will update this story if we get a response.
OneWeb was the first company to seek FCC approval to enter the US broadband market with low-Earth orbit satellites and received approval in June 2017. OneWeb wants to offer service in Alaska as early as 2019. Boeing is also planning to offer satellite broadband.
Pai praised SpaceX and other companies for using "innovative technologies" to improve broadband access. "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. "And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available."