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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

FCC Looks to Approve SpaceX’s Satellite Internet Plan

As reported by TechCrunch: SpaceX is planning to send up a pair of its own satellites in this weekend’s launch, in order to test a proposed space-based broadband internet service. But if you want to get into the broadband business, first you have to get past its U.S. gatekeepers: the FCC. Fortunately for SpaceX, Chairman Ajit Pai is all for it.

Pai issued a statement today saying that satellite internet might be able to “help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.”

Satellite internet is nothing new, of course, and has its own considerable limitations. But a new generation of the technology is certainly worth pursuing — especially if it’s from a U.S. company. Pai wrote:
"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."
SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 on February 17 (should the current target date stick) and the rocket is carrying a primary payload of a Spanish satellite for client Paz. The secondary cargo on the launch is more interesting, however, since it’s two of SpaceX’s own satellites – demonstration satellites the company is putting into orbit to test its plan to offer satellite-based broadband internet communications services.
The rocket will include Microsat-2A and Microsat-2B (via TheNextWeb), small satellites with a planned useful lifetime of just 20 months. Both will contain Ku-band broadband transmitter radios, allowing them to test their ability to offer Earth-based connectivity from low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX wants to test this before deploying a full constellation of its own broadband-providing satellites with a longer-term lifespan, since the private space company hopes to offer affordable, space-based broadband to clients on Earth as an additional revenue stream on top of its rocket launching business. The satellite internet side of its revenue picture could help it pay for ambitious projects like its proposed Mars missions, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explained previously when outlining the company’s long-term plans.
Putting the Microsats into orbit is just one step towards making the broadband business a reality, but it’s a good sign that SpaceX’s grand vision is progressing. After a successful Falcon Heavy first flight earlier this month, and plans to fly Crew Dragon later this year, 2018 could be a banner year for Musk’s space venture.

The SpaceX application was filed late in 2016, and the chairman’s enthusiasm now suggests it’s soon to be considered and, with luck, approved. No doubt we’ll hear when it happens.