How do you feel about your internet service provider options? If you're not wild about them, you may get a new alternative within a few years, thanks to the ever-innovative Elon Musk. His company SpaceX recently unveiled a plan to launch a total of 12,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit. The idea is both to provide broadband to areas that don't have good broadband service and to offer faster internet service than you can get from satellite providers today.

Most satellite services have 600 milliseconds of latency, according to the Federal Communications Commision. SpaceX's Starlink service would have latency between 25 and 35 milliseconds, making it comparable to cable or fiber-optic internet services. And, according to the FCC's  order approving the first 4,425 satellites that SpaceX plans to launch into relatively higher orbit, "Grant of this application will enable SpaceX to bring high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service to consumers in the United States and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks."

Not quite home free.

Winning this approval is a big milestone for SpaceX, but it's not a done deal quite yet. For one thing, SpaceX may have to deal with other satellite operators who have voiced concerns about Starlink satellites operating too close to their own. Oneweb, for instance, asked for a buffer zone that, according to the FCC order, "is unclear and could be interpreted to request a buffer zone that spans altitudes between 1,015 and 1,385 kilometers." That request almost seems chosen to deliberately foil SpaceX's plans, since the Starlink satellites would operate satellites at altitudes between 1,110 kilometers  and 1,325 kilometers. In any case, the FCC wrote:

OneWeb has not provided legal or technical justification for a buffer zone of this size. While we are concerned about the risk of collisions between the space stations of NGSO systems operating at similar orbital altitudes, we think that these concerns are best addressed in the first instance through inter-operator coordination.

In other words: Play nice. If they don't, the FCC noted, it would intervene as appropriate.

Another condition of FCC approval is that SpaceX also obtain approval from the International Telecommunications Union for the company's equivalent power-flux density limits demonstration. And, since ITU governs satellite use worldwide, SpaceX will also need separate approvals from that body.

A larger consideration is what to do about the growing problem of space debris, as more and more satellites and other objects are abandoned in space and some sections of space are at risk of becoming unusable according to some experts. SpaceX's planned 12,000 satellites would almost double the number that are up there today, and there are other satellite companies seeking approvals to put more satellites in orbit as well. SpaceX did provide some details about how it would de-orbit its satellites but the FCC doesn't think they're quite good enough. It said in its order:

Pending further study, it would be premature to grant SpaceX's application based on its current orbital debris mitigation plan. Accordingly, we believe it is appropriate to condition grant of SpaceX's application on the Commission's approval of an updated description of the orbital debris mitigation plans for its system.

And there's one other condition--one that suggests the FCC knows just who it's dealing with. In its request, SpaceX said it planned to get all its satellites in orbit by 2024. But this is Elon Musk we're talking about, and anyone who's followed the doings of his various companies (or pre-ordered a Tesla Model 3) knows just how often his projections about when things will happen tend to slip. So the FCC's approval is conditional on SpaceX getting 50 percent of its initial 4,425 satellites in place by March 2024, and the rest by March 2027. Otherwise, the company may need to reapply for approval.

Meantime, SpaceX has said it will also need to launch 7,500 additional "very-low-Earth orbit" satellites at altitudes of only 335 to 346 kilometers in order to boost capacity and reduce latency in densely populated areas. No approvals or launch plans on those so far. 

Published on: Mar 30, 2018
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