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.
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.