SpaceX has received government approval to deploy up to 1 million user terminals in the United States for its Starlink satellite-broadband constellation.
SpaceX asked the Federal Communications Commission for the license in February 2019, and the FCC announced its approval in a public notice last week. The FCC approval is for “a blanket license for the operation of up to 1,000,000 fixed earth stations that will communicate with [SpaceX’s] non-geostationary orbit satellite system.” The license is good for 15 years.
As SpaceX’s application said, the earth stations are “user terminals [that] employ advanced phased-array beam-forming and digital-processing technologies to make highly efficient use of Ku-band spectrum resources by supporting highly directive, steered antenna beams that track the system’s low-Earth orbit satellites.”
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk described them in simpler terms at a satellite-industry conference a couple weeks ago, saying the user terminals “look like a UFO on a stick” and will have actuators that let them point themselves in the right direction.
“It’s very important that you don’t need a specialist to install it,” Musk said at the time. “The goal is that… there’s just two instructions, and they can be done in either order: point at sky, plug in.”
One million terminals would only cover a fraction of US homes, but SpaceX isn’t necessarily looking to sign up huge portions of the US population. Musk said at the conference that Starlink will likely serve the “3 or 4 percent hardest-to-reach customers for telcos” and “people who simply have no connectivity right now, or the connectivity is really bad.” Starlink won’t have lots of customers in big cities like LA “because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough,” he said.
We asked SpaceX today if it might eventually seek authorization for more than 1 million terminals for US customers and will update this article if we get an answer.
362 satellites launched so far
SpaceX already has FCC approval to launch up to 11,943 satellites. Unlike traditional broadband satellites, these will operate from low Earth orbits and be capable of delivering high speeds and latencies of below 20ms. Starlink service is expected to be available in parts of the US this year, although it will take years to launch all the planned satellites.
It remains to be seen what impact the coronavirus pandemic has on SpaceX’s Starlink plans. SpaceX has so far launched 362 satellites and has another launch of 60 satellites planned for April, but no date for the April launch has been announced.
While Starlink should be a welcome alternative for many US residents, particularly those without access to cable or fiber, the service may have a much bigger impact globally. As of 2018, just 58 percent of households worldwide had access to Internet service, according to an International Telecommunication Union and United Nations report. Mobile devices are the primary means of Internet access in low- and middle-income countries, and Starlink could bring real home Internet connections to many of those people for the first time if it is affordable.
OneWeb, one of SpaceX’s primary satellite competitors, is reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy protection and said “it is inevitable that there will be delays to our launch schedule and satellite manufacturing due to increasing travel restrictions and the disruption of supply chains globally.”