SpaceX, STARLINK, and the Battle for Satellite Broadband Deployment

October 2, 2017
Kelsey Tollefson
Chad Anderson
October 2, 2017
Kelsey Tollefson
Chad Anderson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

For several years, SpaceX has been something of the de facto face of the entrepreneurial space industry—thanks to its high-profile rocket launches/landings, audacious plans for Mars colonization, and enigmatic frontman Elon Musk. While the company may have become synonymous with the burgeoning private launch industry, SpaceX is also working to make an entrée into the booming satellite services market. Last week, when Musk announced his new Mars architecture and his plan to pay for it, he mentioned “satellites” at the top of that list. The launching of satellites is just one piece of the puzzle—the other is the revenue he expects to generate from operating his own. Musk announced in 2015 that the company was pursuing plans for a high-speed, low-cost “space internet,” delivered via satellite constellation to any place on Earth. This constellation would be designed and built in SpaceX’s new “satellite office” complex, near Seattle, which opened for business in June of 2015.

On September 19th, GeekWire broke the news that SpaceX has moved to trademark the name STARLINK—a fitting moniker for a global satellite broadband network, and a signal that the company has ratcheted up its satellite constellation initiative. While trademarks are pending, the issue of funding this ambitious vision persists. In 2015, Musk estimated that it would take around $10 billion to establish a world-wide, space-based internet service. But with SpaceX spending much of its operating budget on rocket-related costs and R&D, the company is eyeing supplementary funding channels and raising new capital—perhaps hoping for a repeat of Google’s billion-dollar investment in 2015—in order to deploy its global broadband vision.

The FCC’s Connect America Fund is currently in its auction phase—but satellite broadband networks are at a disadvantage.

Despite the ubiquity of modern internet connectivity, there are significant portions of the world that remain disconnected—and, perhaps surprisingly, there are many parts of the United States which are still underserved by high-speed internet providers. This is due in large part to the high cost of establishing the infrastructure necessary to deliver broadband in more rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has implemented a subsidy program, called the Connect America Fund, or CAF, in order to encourage network providers to expand their voice and data coverage to underserved regions.

Under Phase II of the CAF (the “auction” phase), the FCC will provide winning bidders a total of $1.98 billion in subsidized funding over ten years, with the ultimate goal of delivering quick and reliable internet services to the tens of millions of Americans who lack access to even the most basic broadband connections.

Bidders must apply to provide connectivity at one of four performance tiers (from minimum speeds of 10/1 Mbps to upwards of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps), to be deliveredat either high or low latency levels (latency is the delay in data transmission). When scored to determine funding allocations, providers proposing high-latency services will be quantitatively less likely to receive CAF-II subsidies than those who offer low-latency solutions—a measure that the FCC has implemented in order to best serve “public interest.” Lower-speed applicants would be similarly penalized in order to encourage providers to deliver higher-quality services.

Unfortunately, according to a public notice posted by the chairman of the FCC, the agency has moved to prohibit satellite broadband networks from applying for funding at the low-latency service level (paragraph 49 of PDF). The agency has also expressed skepticism that satellite operators would be able to provide customers connectivity at the higher performance tiers in a timely manner (paragraph 49 of PDF). Taken together, these considerations would effectively disallow satellite operators from receiving CAF-II subsidies—and SpaceX has reached out to the FCC in an effort to set a few things straight.

SpaceX has appealed to the FCC to change their assumptions about communications satellites.

The FCC is assuming that all communications satellites are inherently high-latency, since historically most communications satellites have been placed in geosynchronous orbit (which, at nearly 36,000 km above sea level, does indeed suffer from significant transmission delays). The average latency time for current satellite internet providers is about 600 ms—six times the benchmark “high-latency” level the FCC has designated for the CAF-II program. However, next-generation communications satellites, and the satellite constellations that SpaceX is proposing, will be deployed in an orbit much nearer to Earth—about 35,000 km nearer, to be exact, resulting in much lower latency times.

SpaceX has reached out to the FCC in order to argue that satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit should be considered as eligible applicants for CAF-II subsidies. For their part, SpaceX has proposed two different satellite constellations, each of which is pending operational approval from the FCC and which would both be located in low-Earth orbits (LEO). The first constellation, comprising some 4,400 satellites, will orbit approximately 1,200 km away from the Earth and operate in the high-demand Ku- and Ka-band frequencies. The second constellation is somehow even more ambitious: It would include more than 7,500 satellites placed between 335 and 345 km above the Earth, which would operate in the little-used high-frequency V-band—the so-called “next frontier” of commercial satellite frequencies. Per SpaceX, the anticipated latency of its LEO satellites will be between 25-35 milliseconds—orders of magnitude faster than current satellite constellations in geosynchronous orbit.

While butting heads with the FCC may seem like an unlikely way to change program policy, SpaceX has a history of prompting self-reflection in government agencies. For example, at the annual Air Force Association Air Space Cyber Conference on September 20th, Brigadier General Wayne Monteith stated that SpaceX has had significant influence on how the U.S. Air Force approaches their own launches: “They have forced us—and I mean forced us—to get better, infinitely better, at what we do.

A space-based internet with global connectivity has the potential to change the world’s economy for the better.

According to Britain’s BT Global Services, a major telecommunications provider, customers have generally not been fans of satellite communications—due to higher prices, lower data speeds, and persistent latency issues as compared to terrestrial networks. With the advent of higher bandwidth satellites and the promise of LEO constellations, however, the global demand for commercial satellite telecommunications is expected to grow. Increased adoption would be beneficial, not only to the satellite operators, but to millions of customers across the planet.

The FCC recognizes that broadband access boosts economic activity, and that today’s economy is substantially centered around the internet. Reliable high-speed internet access, particularly in developing parts of the world, has been shown to have a measurable impact on economic growth and job creation. Broadly speaking, high-speed connectivity streamlines business practices and broadens the labor workforce. In rural areas, access to the internet leads to growth in population, per capita income, and GDP.

There is a caveat: All of this growth potential in rural and developing areas is constrained by cost and ease of access to high-speed internet services. In many parts of the world—and indeed, in parts of the United States—the cost to reliably access the internet (at non-frustrating connection speeds) is prohibitively expensive. While the FCC’s CAF initiative was formed in order to address the infrastructural shortcomings that contribute to this systemic problem in the United States, providing high-speed internet connectivity to certain parts of the globe will require a virtual paradigm shift; a massive change in the way that the internet is delivered to customers in hard-to-access regions of the world. Non-geostationary (NGEO) communications satellites—like SpaceX’s STARLINK “space internet,” OneWeb’s proposed constellation, and others—could represent the change that ushers in a new era of a truly world-wide web.

Satellite internet networks in Low-Earth Orbit will lead to major changes on Earth, but may pose a challenge for regulators.

OneWeb has already gained FCC approval for its proposed Ku- and Ka-band LEO satellite constellation, comprising 720 satellites orbiting at 1,200 km above the Earth. OneWeb’s network is SpaceX’s main competition—after all, the rocket company is proposing a similar constellation which would operate at the same bandwidths and orbit at the same altitude, and which would add more than 4,000 satellite units to an already-crowded region of near-Earth space. However, since STARLINK aims to provide its services across the globe, the FCC ruled last week that SpaceX would also need to seek additional operating approval from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Moving forward, both the FCC and the ITU will be crucial in determining just how an increasing number of would-be satellite internet providers will coordinate their operations and share radio spectrums.

The solution to streamlining the impending spectrum circus may simply be to bypass it entirely. A growing number of startup companies, including Space Angels-funded ventures Atlas, BridgeSat, and Analytical Space are developing networks of optical communications satellites and ground systems. By relying on lasers, rather than radio waves, to send and receive data, optical communications are able to avoid the potential interference and latency inherent to crowded radio frequency spectrums.

Meanwhile, SpaceX hopes to convince the FCC to consider their planned STARLINK satellite constellation eligible for the Commission’s Connect America Fund initiative, currently in auction phase. While some may consider such appeals to government agencies fruitless endeavors, if anyone could persuade the FCC to reconsider their guidelines it would be SpaceX. After all, SpaceX has a track record of success in shaping the way government interacts with innovative private ventures. While the FCC’s formal response to SpaceX’s request is pending, the satellite and communications industries, angel investors, and countless customers across the planet eagerly await the arrival of space-based internet services.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

Image credit: Shutterstock, Getty Images, CNN, OneWeb

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