Why it matters: Having already secured authorization for the satellite part of their ambitious Starlink broadband project, SpaceX is now seeking FCC permission to operate ‘earth stations’ that get users online.
Last year SpaceX successfully tested two of the microsatellites that will form the backbone of its Starlink broadband project, and in November it secured authorization to launch more than 7,000 such satellites to get the network up and running. Now comes the next part, getting permission to operate the ‘earth stations’ that will enable users to tap into that network.
In a filing to the FCC, SpaceX Services (a sister company to SpaceX) requests “a blanket license authorizing operation of up to 1,000,000 earth stations that end-user customers will utilize to communicate with SpaceX’s NGSO [non-geostationary orbit] constellation.”
While the aim ultimately is to connect people around the world who are ‘underserved or unserved’ by current internet technologies, for now SpaceX is seeking approval to operate the earth stations in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Starlink project differs from traditional satellite-based internet technologies in a few key ways. Firstly, the satellites are in low-Earth orbit, so the distance between them and receivers on the ground is shorter, and thus travel times are shorter, too. Secondly as mentioned in the filing, the satellites are in a non-geostationary orbit, meaning they are not travelling at a fixed velocity to stay in the same place relative to the Earth’s rotation.
The satellites and the earth stations also make use of two frequency bands in the electromagnetic spectrum that are not currently used in commercial satellite broadband systems (though NASA currently employs those bands to talk to the ISS among other things).
The earth stations will transmit in the range of 14.0-14.5 GHz (part of the ‘Ku band’) and receive in the range of 10.7-12.7 GHz (part of the ‘X band’).
It seems likely that SpaceX will secure authorization, given the FCC’s prior approval of the satellite part of the infrastructure – due to be launched this year. If approved, SpaceX is looking to deploy the earth stations in 2020.