SpaceX has a habit of setting ambitious goals. Founder Elon Musk talks about populating Mars. The company has developed (partially) resuable rockets that help reduce the cost of sending things into space (when everything works as planned). And now SpaceX is one step closer to another major goal: delivering broadband internet to isolated areas and providing more competition in regions that are already served by one or two high-speed internet providers.

The company has been developing technology for a satellite-based internet service called Starlink, and the US Federal Communications Commission has just given SpaceX the go-ahead to build out the network.

SpaceX Feb 22nd PAZ mission

Here’s the plan: put 4,425 fixed-position satellites into low-earth orbit to beam data back and forth to users around the world. Actually, that’s just the first step. Eventually SpaceX wants to have as many as 12,000 of the satellites in the air.

That’s a lot of satellites, and there’s been some concern that the plan could put a lot more junk into space or cause interference with other satellite communication systems, but SpaceX says each satellite would be at least 31 miles away from the next.

Here’s why SpaceX needs so many satellites: a typical geostationary satellite is about 22,000 miles above the Earth. SpaceX wants to put its satellites around 200 to 800 miles up. That means there will be a lot less latency when beaming signals to and from the Earth than you get from other satellites. But it also means that each satellite will be able to reach a smaller portion of the Earth’s surface.

The 4,425 satellites the FCC approved SpaceX to put in the sky will be positioned around 700 miles from the planet’s surface. Later they’ll be joined by another 7,500 or so satellites that will be just 200 miles up.

So far the company has put just two of the satellites in space, with a test launch last month.

Satellite internet has been around for years, but it’s generally suffered from slow data speeds and high latency. By putting its satellites into a lower orbit, SpaceX is hoping to solve those problems. Will it be as fast as a fiber connection? Probably not. But it also doesn’t require laying fiber or building a network of towers, so it could help bring the internet to rural and isolated areas where it might not otherwise be available.

If all goes according to plan, SpaceX hopes its satellite internet business will become a major revenue generator, to the tune of $30 billion per year by 2025, according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal last year.

It’s not clear if that’ll happen: SpaceX will need to have tens of millions of subscribers to make that kind of money. But if the project proves successful it could help bring more of the world online, offer increased competition in the developed world, and help Musk get his ass to Mars.

SpaceX Starlink FCC application

via Hacker News, The Washington Post, and The Verge

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13 replies on “FCC approves SpaceX plan for satellite broadband internet service”

  1. Great alternative to monopolies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter. I hope this is more affordable than previous satellite based systems like Globalstar, O3b networks, Inmarsat or Iridium.

  2. I feel like this might be a tad overly optimistic. There are currently 4,600 or so satellites in orbit. So they’re going to double that number? Getting the GPS satellites up and maintaining them is and was a chore and that’s with a tiny fraction of satellites. The first GPS satellites were decommissioned before there were enough to make the system viable planet-wide.

    If they launched one a day, which would be an astoundingly ambitious pace, it’d take 12 years to get them all up there. They made 18 launches last year. At that rate you’re looking at fielding them all in 244 years.

    1. This idea is not new, the past summer I heard from Portuguese Tekever about their project, the advantages of large clusters is that maintenance costs should be inferior since every satellite would be smaller and less complex than existing internet satellites, the signal is being transmitted from a shorter distances and one of these smaller satellites is cheaper to replace.

    2. Also, it’s not like you have to have one launch per satellite. You could send up a dozen at a time, for example, up to an orbit that could evenly space them around one plane.

    3. The very low altitude they’re putting them at makes them much easier to deploy and maintain than GPS satellites or the even-higher altitudes of standard communication satellites. They’re going a few hundred miles up instead of a few thousand. They’re also tiny by satellite standards, which is another point in their favor(cost to fly goes up with mass, as well as altitude).

      The concept is closest to the Iridium phone network(albeit with much higher bandwidth). Iridium wasn’t cheap to set up, but relative to “proper” geosynchronous satellites it was a bargain. It also provides us with a benchmark for how many satellites are NEEDED for total coverage(Iridium needs 66). The Starlink network can probably come online with less than a hundred satellites launched. Iridium managed to get all their initial launches done with two years and twenty launches by putting multiple satellites on each rocket(coincidentally, SpaceX put forty new Iridium satellites in orbit last year, in batches of ten).

      All that said, space debris is a very valid concern, and I’m not convinced Musk has a good answer for putting THOUSANDS of satellites in LEO(even if they’re only spread out over a dozen orbits).

  3. Thank you for answering my question about latency. Years ago I had DirecPC and while you could download large files quickly, complex webpages took forever. It really was not a good system at all.

  4. I am waiting for Comcast/AT&T/etc. to start pushing politicians to try to make this illegal (just like municipal broadband). I mean, think of the children!
    /s

  5. >Satellite internet has been around for years, but it’s generally suffered from slow data speeds and low latency.

    I assume you meant *high* latency there.

    1. Airplane internet link. Maybe sell bandwidth to military. Certainly too pricey for people in cities and medium towns.

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