SpaceX satellite broadband plan gets nudge from FCC head

Elon Musk's company wants to send almost 11,000 satellites into low-earth orbit, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is endorsing the project.

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Eric Mack
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The head of the US Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday urged approval of the massive satellite constellation SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hopes will be beaming memes around the world in the mid-2020s.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 delivers telecommunications satellites to orbit that will join a constellation run by Iridium.


The timing is notable. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's endorsement comes just days before SpaceX plans to launch two small satellites to test its proposed broadband internet service.

"I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans," Pai said in a statement.

SpaceX declined a request for comment on Pai's endorsement.

SpaceX's application proposes deploying one constellation in low-earth orbit between 1,100 km (684 mi) and 1,325 km (823 mi) above us, made up of 4,425 small satellites.  It also calls for a second, larger constellation in very low-earth orbit around 340 km (211 mi) altitude consisting of 7,518 satellites. 

The idea is to be able to provide low-latency broadband to rural and remote places with little or no internet access and to improve speeds and coverage in areas with so-so access. The service is currently set to go by the name "Starlink."

Also, SpaceX hopes that becoming a global ISP will help fund its missions to Mars

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But the company's application has been criticized by competitors like the Richard Branson-backed OneWeb, which received FCC approval for its own, smaller broadband satellite constellation last year. A letter from OneWeb's attorneys to the FCC claims SpaceX has failied to "account for the safety risks of operating in such close orbital proximity to OneWeb and other systems."

SpaceX responded in its own letter that its plan meets all safety requirements and that the SpaceX and OneWeb systems would be separated by at least 50 km (30 mi.) in space.

Other big names from Silicon Valley have ambitions to improve connectivity from very high altitudes, including Google and Facebook, which saw its broadband satellite for Africa blow up aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 during a test-firing.

Exactly when the vote on approving SpaceX's Starlink proposal may happen is unclear. FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield told me that action on the SpaceX application could be taken internally any time or at a public meeting as soon as next month. The application is not mentioned in the agenda for the FCC's next open meeting on Feb. 22. If the vote happens internally, the result will be posted on the FCC website afterwards.

If SpaceX gets FCC approval, there are still other hurdles to clear, since operating a worldwide service will also require the blessing of a completely separate regulatory body, the International Telecommunications Union.

SpaceX could potentially operate its Starlink internet service just in the United States while it pursues approvals elsewhere, but that's likely still a few years off.

One thing SpaceX already has FCC approval for is turning on its first two test satellites for the ambitious broadband project. They're set to launch aboard a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California Saturday morning.

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