FCC OKs SpaceX satellite broadband

The US Federal Communications Commission has approved an application by SpaceX to provide broadband services using satellite technology in the United States and around the world, a move it says represents another step the Commission is taking to increase high-speed broadband availability and competition in the United States.

This is the first approval of a US-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies. SpaceX had proposed a satellite system – dubbed ‘Starlink’ – comprising 4,425 satellites and was granted authority to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands to provide global Internet connectivity.

The Memorandum Opinion, Order and Authorization outlines the conditions under which SpaceX is authorised to provide service using its proposed NGSO FSS satellite constellation. Specifically, the Order specifies the conditions to ensure compliance with Commission rules, and to protect other operations in the requested frequency bands.

Over the past year, the FCC has approved requests by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat to access the United States market to provide broadband services using satellite technology that holds promise to expand Internet access, particularly in remote and rural areas across the country. 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.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had proposed in mid-February 2018 that the agency approve the SpaceX application, suggesting that satellite technology could help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fibre optic cables and cell towers do not reach, offering more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.

“We appreciate the FCC’s thorough review and approval of SpaceX’s constellation licence,” stated Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer at SpaceX. “Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking, this is an important step toward SpaceX building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected.”

The prize, for SpaceX and his rivals, which the FCC statement recognises, is low-cost broadband delivered by satellite to those parts of the planet with little or no access to reliable wireless signals. But SpaceX founder Elon Musk and his team now have some significant challenges ahead. Top of the list is the time-table set by the FCC. SpaceX must launch at a phenomenal rate of an average 41 satellites per month in order to wrap the complete job by 2027. Indeed, the FCC has ruled that SpaceX must bring at least half of the permitted 4,425 into use within six years – of now! That’s 31 satellites a month by March 29th 2024 or a rate of almost 500 satellites per year.

Musk’s application before the FCC called for the 4,425 satellites to be placed in 83 (polar) orbital planes, and with latency delays of just 25 milliseconds, and capable of 1Gb/s speed, more than equal to the very best fibre connection.

But Musk also has another application pending for a further 7,500 satellites orbiting just 320 kms up (200 miles).

The FCC ruling specifically highlights that even in the USA some 14 million Americans live in rural areas with zero or very slow access to broadband, and additionally some 1.2 users living in “tribal areas” will also benefit from Musk’s plan.

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