SpaceX Seeks FCC Approval for 1 Million Earth-Based Satellite Uplinks

Private spaceflight firm SpaceX has been publicly planning to deploy a network of “Starlink” satellites to offer broadband internet for several years, but all the details have been on the space-based end. Now, a subsidiary company called SpaceX Services has asked the FCC for authorization to deploy up to a million ground transmitters to communicate with the Starlink satellites.

The SpaceX plan consists of launching a large number of satellites in low-Earth orbit. The company will start with 4,425 of them in low-Earth orbit and another 7,518 flying at “very-low” Earth orbit between 208 and 215 miles (335 to 346 kilometers). Low-Earth orbit is around 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers). According to SpaceX, these ultra-low satellites will help reduce latency and increase transmission speeds in congested areas like cities.

On the ground side, SpaceX now says it wants a blanket license to deploy the one-million stations on Earth that will end users in the US to its satellite network. Each terminal would make use of advanced beamforming and steerable antenna technology. The SpaceX constellation is set to operate in the Ku-band spectrum, thus the FCC’s involvement. The Earth stations will transmit at 14.0-14.5GHz and receive signals at 10.7-12.7GHz. For comparison, current LTE networks operate at 600MHz to 2.5GHz. SpaceX has said that Starlink could provide gigabit speeds with latency as low as 25ms, putting it on par with terrestrial broadband.

SpaceX-Launch-Feature satellite internet

SpaceX satellite internet launch, February 2018. Credit: SpaceX

A recent job posting for SpaceX engineering talent suggests the ground station will be a consumer-facing device. So, rather than having a cable or DSL modem in your house, you might have one of SpaceX’s Starlink terminals and an antenna that communicates with the satellite network. These terminals are separate from SpaceX’s planned gateway facilities, which could number in the hundreds. These nodes would connect to the internet backbone, providing online access to Starlink users.

SpaceX is asking the FCC to approve its application quickly in light of it’s “ambitious timetable for launching satellites and deploying broadband services.” That’s something of an understatement. The company is reportedly targeting the middle of this year for its first Starlink launches, and the service could be online in 2020. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk even fired several senior managers in the Starlink project last year to keep up the aggressive schedule. So, who knows? This time next year you could be browsing the web with satellite internet that doesn’t stink.

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