FCC greenlights SpaceX broadband but bigger obstacles remain

ISPs will be inspecting Amazon through a telescope after the company recently filed plans to launch 3,236 satellites to support internet access, yet a more immediate potential threat looms as SpaceX has just received FCC approval to launch 4,425 satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) for high-speed internet services – with the first batch going live in demo mode this week.

SpaceX’s first fleet of LEO satellites will give the company a more comprehensive grasp of the potential speeds the StarLink web of satellites can realize, plus a better understanding of technical obstacles. A handful of test satellites have been launched by SpaceX in the past, but nothing on this scale before – in a landmark moment for the company and industry as a whole.

Clearly satellite-delivered internet services aren’t about to fly off the shelves anytime soon in areas where fiber infrastructure is readily available, yet there is a huge case for bringing faster internet services to rural areas of the US currently unserved by FTTH or even FTTC. Few operators, let alone the government, are willing to make costly network upgrades outside major cities where returns would be minimal. So, in giving SpaceX the green light to launch thousands of satellites, the FCC has seen the value of bringing satellite internet to rural communities, as well as the potential lifesaving and money saving capabilities during emergency situations.

A fleet comprising “dozens” of LEO satellites will be sent up this week on a Falcon 9 rocket, in anticipation of sending up a much larger fleet to complete the network later this year, according to SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, speaking during the recent Satellite 2019 Event in Washington. “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration for us to see and start putting our network together,” she told the audience, which will be spread across between two and four launches.

But even the 4,000+ satellites arriving later this year are a fraction of the finished project, as SpaceX plots to bring 12,000 low-cost, high-performance satellites into orbit by the mid-2020s.

Progress in the satellite sector admittedly isn’t nearly as rapid as the fast-paced world of OTT video we are accustomed to, so the rewards of a major development made last year are still to be fully exploited. This involved SpaceX launching the world’s most powerful spacecraft into orbit in February 2018, a 3-booster, 27-engine Falcon Heavy rocket capable of propelling 64 tons into space. We said at the time that, beyond the highly cited case for space exploration, the extraordinary feat of engineering and science would spark a revolution in bringing broadband connectivity to rural regions of the globe. While SpaceX hasn’t been short of technical breakthroughs, the key is in lowering launch costs dramatically which the Falcon Heavy achieved by returning two boosters to earth unscathed and unmanned for reuse.

The Falcon Heavy was then brought into action for Arabsat in April this year, launching the Arabsat-6A GEO communications satellite for TV, internet, telephony and other communications across Europe and MENA. This time around and for the first time, all three Falcon Heavy boosters were returned to the launch pad which SpaceX plans to use in its next mission. Progress.

However, SpaceX is under increasing scrutiny from a financial standpoint, with some describing its business model as becoming little more than frantic attempts to raise funds, claiming launch demand is on the decline, while the Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin initiative represents ever-stiffening competition.

With Amazon now directly entering the game via its Project Kuiper, in a similar vein to Facebook and Google to bring connectivity to the next billion people, SpaceX has a stubborn task ahead. And that’s without factoring in the incipient Chinese technology, with aggressive growth plans to disrupt the satellite industry further – manufacturing mammoth volumes of capacity in the coming years for export around the world. Who wants to bet on a repeat of the Huawei debacle occurring in the satellite broadband market before 2025?