FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Backs SpaceX’s Satellite Internet Plan

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON, February 14, 2018 (FCC PR) —Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai today proposed that the agency approve an application by Space Exploration Holdings, doing business as SpaceX, to provide broadband services using satellite technologies in the United States and on a global basis. Chairman Pai issued the following statement:

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies. SpaceX’s application—along with those of other satellite companies seeking licenses or access to the U.S. market for non-geostationary satellite orbit systems—involves one such innovation. Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, 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. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.”

Background

Over the past year, the FCC has approved requests by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat to access the United States market to provide broadband services using satellite technology that holds promise to expand Internet access in remote and rural areas across the country. These approvals are the first of their kind for a new generation of large, non-geostationary satellite orbit, fixed-satellite service systems, and the Commission continues to process other, similar requests.

  • Kirk

    SpaceX’s internet satellite prototypes, Microsat 2a & 2b, are scheduled to be launched Saturday morning at 06:17 PST on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg as secondary payloads to PAZ, the Spanish Earth observing radar satellite. Launch will be 27 minutes before sunrise, and the Falcon 9 should break into daylight at about T+02:10. It will be interesting to see how the forelit PAZ launch compares to the spectacular backlit Iridium NEXT4 launch from last December.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I’d like to see the US agencies require that SpaceX show that they have the funding in hand to complete any proposed system beyond their demonstration satellites and post a bond. Orbits around Earth are getting very crowded and SpaceX is proposing a very large number of new craft to make their system work. If they run out of money, the system won’t be very useful if it’s not complete.

    Given all of the projects that Elon has on his plate now, tapping the investors that believe in him for even more money might not yield enough to cover putting the entire system in place with the ability to operate it for a few years at a loss until enough customers sign up. It should also be shown that it would benefit enough new internet customers to be worth them switching to a brand new service.

  • Kirk

    At least de-orbiting is an option is the venture goes belly up. Per SpaceX FCC application: “Satellites in the LEO Constellation will de-orbit by propulsively moving to a disposal orbit from which they will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere within approximately one year after completion of their mission.”

    https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Legal-Narrative.pdf

  • Can U find a picture of what a forelit launch looks like? I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth getting up that early in the morning. 🙂

  • Given SpaceX will have the cheapest launchers in the world for a while, how much of the telecommications market do you think they can take from: TV (e.g. DirecTV), radio (e.g. XM), Internet, text messages, & cell phones?

  • ThomasLMatula

    It should be a lot brighter since the Sun is to the East of it not the West. It will be worth it. Or you could just catch all the YouTube videos of it 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Depends on how aggressive they are about leveraging their advantage.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, let’s make the barrier to entry so high it freezes him out… Let’s be like NASA and avoid innovation because it might (gasp) fail!

  • Not Invented Here

    No government agency has this right since neither the US nor any other country has ownership over LEO. And even if they do, they’ll need to clean up their own mess first before requiring companies to do the same.

  • Terry Stetler

    Are you aware that ,

    January 2015: Google & Fidelity invest $1 billion in SpaceX

    June 2016: Google acquires WebPass (wireless internet provider)

    July 2016: “mesh constellation” patent holder moves from Google to SpaceX. Google is still the patent assignee.

    November 2016: SpaceX files FCC application for 4,025 satellite constellation

    Do the math.

  • mattmcc80

    A big satellite constellation isn’t automatically a win in the US over established terrestrial backbones, especially with the increasingly tight bonds between content providers and telecom networks. Starlink’s biggest growth potential will be countries that aren’t already carved up by the megacorps.

  • ReSpaceAge

    I find the little fact that these two test sats cost SpaceX nothing to launch other than the system to eject them from the 2nd stage.

    I’m wondering how many satellites in their future fleet will be launched while a paying customer foots the bill?
    10 percent?
    20 percent?

    More?

  • Lee

    Ahh, but they *did* cost SpaceX money to launch. Or more accurately, they prevented SpaceX from earning income from another company to whom they could have sold those positions on the launcher to. Just a guess (since neither of us are privy to SpaceX finances), but my guess is that when SpaceX flies a main payload and 2-3 smaller payloads, the smaller payloads still pay something, and the main payload pays a bit less than the full cost of the launch. If that is true, it is logical to assume that the Spanish only paid their “share” of the launch costs.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    None of that means anything. Larry Page might decide that he isn’t going to give his billions to charity or Elon. It’s just a one line quip attributed to Larry almost 4 years ago. Remember when Mr. Page was fully behind Singularity University?

    SpaceX just raised another $100 million but it’s unknown if they were desperate for the money to fund ongoing operations or if it is for other projects that they couldn’t fund themselves.

    WebPass? Yeah? so? That’s Google, not SpaceX.

    The patent holder moves from Google to SpaceX and how does that affect whether SpaceX can fund the whole project? Like you write, it’s still Google’s patent so unless they are part of the consortium and on the hook, it’s a licensing cost to SpaceX.

    It’s not uncommon for terrestrial building projects to require completion bonds. Cities don’t want to give the go ahead for developments that don’t have a good chance of being completed. Those half built properties cost cities money since the city becomes the de factor security and they often get burned down. Another developer might be in a better position to complete the development which then becomes additional tax generating property. I’m not saying that a satellite is going to be set on fire or vandalized, but if only a couple of thousand make it to orbit and the funds run out, that’s a lot of hardware taking up valuable slots another company will full backing could be using and paying taxes on the profits.

    Elon talks a lot and starts many projects, but he’s yet to turn a profit on any of them. Tesla has been on the brink of collapse a couple of times and still isn’t standing on solid ground. SpaceX is a big unknown since they are private, but they have much catching up to do to clear out the backlog of jobs they have booked from customers that have paid deposits and have been waiting a considerable amount of time. Can they afford to build, launch and operate a 4,025 satellite constellation with money they have now or are they hoping that once they get building more investment will come on board from somewhere?

  • Kenneth_Brown

    There would have to be a big adoption in the rural first world and companies with remote facilities that are willing to pay handsome sums for fast connections. Governments might purchase some bandwidth, but the US military has their own Sat network that they can control end to end which is important for security.

    Anytime I see a business plan to cover somewhere such as Africa or South America with high-speed internet, I’m dubious. The big cities are wired, the governments in many of those countries do not want unfettered access to the internet for everybody that can’t be controlled and censored. The rural population tends to not be wealthy enough from a first world perspective to pay for such a service. It might be that there is one account for a whole community that’s available at and near the town hall. Things also change in a big hurry. Venezuela used to be a strong country. Now, the population is far more worried about being able to afford staple items and less worried about getting a Netflix account.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I think that all satellites need some sort of de-orbiting mechanism with redundant activation. I think it’s a British Earth observation satellite that just went dead in the last year or so that’s the size of a double decker bus. Nobody knows why it suddenly failed and it’s just a big lump of uncontrolled metal that will come down some day, somewhere.

    De-obiting a perfectly functional satellite is a sad waste.

  • duheagle

    That will depend entirely upon service pricing and what the minimum size, mass and physical footprint of a useful ground terminal can be. The GEO-based services – mostly TV – probably have some latitude within which to lower their own prices. Terrestrial cable may have a rougher go of it. Cell phones and text service should be the least affected, at least initially. After enough of the constellation is up to provide true everywhere-on-Earth service, though, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see SpaceX marketing sat-phones that are pricier than 4G or 5G terrestrial cell phones, but competitive with Iridium’s.

  • duheagle

    Neither SpaceX nor any competing operator of LEO comsat constellations is going to immediately sweep all terrestrial and GEO alternatives aside. But all exisitng modalities will be squeezed.

    As for the unfortunate citizens of “—-hole” countries, there’s this marvelous thing called smuggling.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And often developers will avoid those cities and they start losing out on new ventures and get stuck with outdated infrastructure.

    BTW do you know what happened to Iridium when it went bankrupt? Something to think about.

  • duheagle

    U.S. regulators, including the FCC, do not have the authority to simply forbid a currently going concern to deploy infrastructure so long as the project would raise no significant technical issues for other spectrum users. Orbits around Earth are not getting crowded. Even internationally, the only way some entity that obtains initial permission to use a given GEO slot can be deprived of it, ex post facto, is for said entity to fail to put a bird in said slot by a deadline date. GEO slots are a uniquely limited resource. There is no comparable regime in place anent any other orbital altitude or inclination.

    Even a partially-deployed constellation has value in any event. The original corporate entity behind the Iridium constellation went broke, but another entity stepped up, bought the distressed assets for a comparative pittance and went on to make enough money using them to fund the initial constellation’s complete replacement – a process now more than half complete. SpaceX is in no danger of near-term insolvency. But even if it was to disappear a few years down the road, it’s assets and intellectual property would simply be acquired by others and operated by them.

    In any event, I have heard of no plans on the part of SpaceX to raise any additional outside money for Starlink construction and deployment. But if that proves to be the plan, SpaceX would have zero trouble in raising all the money it needed on very favorable terms. Satcom projects with credible backers have no problem raising even quite eye-popping sums on the private capital markets. OneWeb, for example, a company that brings considerably less to the table than SpaceX, has already secured billions in capital to build and launch its own constellation.

    You need to get a better hobby than sitting up nights trying to think up new ways in which SpaceX can be portrayed as a bad guy.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX turns a very tidy profit on operations as I’ve explained to you repeatedly. That’s where SpaceX expects to get the money to fund Starlink deployment.

    Your obdurate and apparently unshakable belief in SpaceX’s financial fragility is sort of touching in a pathetic way, but it also borders on being pathological at this point.

    It would be nice, before spinning the latest in these flights of disaster-movie fantasy of yours, if you could maybe adduce at least one plausible, evidence-based reason for assuming SpaceX is about to financially crack up. “Because Musk!” doesn’t qualify.

    Neither do references to Tesla as the two companies are entirely separate entities and even a complete collapse of Tesla would have little effect on SpaceX – except giving Elon even more time to devote to it. That prospect alone probably has all SpaceX’s launch services competitors on their knees at night praying for Tesla’s survival.

    Completion bonds can be required by the powers that be in a given terrestrial sovereign territory, but there are no sovereign territories in space and no extant mechanisms that allow any particular terrestrial sovereignty to place any part of it off limits to anyone with the single exception of GEO for which an international regulatory regime exists.

    Given SpaceX’s demonstrated high mission cadence in 2017, and the fact that it is off to an even faster start this year, I don’t think you’re likely to find much nervousness in the service among SpaceX’s waiting line of clients. Delays and accidents used to be the ostensible reasons SpaceX’s detractors adduced for supposing a SpaceX client rebellion of some sort to be imminent. But people with satellites to launch are realists. And, given that SpaceX’s Russian and European competitors have had their own troubles recently – repeated troubles in the case of the Russians – it hardly seems likely that SpaceX’s enviable backlog is going to see any attrition now that it is launching two or more missions a month.

  • duheagle

    Which is why, in the exceedingly unlikely event SpaceX goes broke, some other corporation will acquire its assets and continue to operate them – just like happened with Iridium back in the day.

  • Paul451

    SpaceX just raised another $100 million but it’s unknown if they were desperate for the money to fund ongoing operations or if it is for other projects that they couldn’t fund themselves.

    $100m is way too small to be useful, so it is most likely just to let people cash in their stock options.