SpaceX seeks FCC OK for 1 million satellite broadband Earth stations


An illustration of the Earth, with lines circling the globe to represent a telecommunications network.

SpaceX is seeking US approval to deploy up to 1 million Earth stations to receive transmissions from its planned satellite broadband constellation.

The Federal Communications Commission last year gave SpaceX permission to deploy 11,943 low-Earth orbit satellites for the planned Starlink system. A new application from SpaceX Services, a sister company, asks the FCC for “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.”

The application was published by FCC.report, a third-party site that tracks FCC filings. GeekWire reported the news on Friday. An FCC spokesperson confirmed to Ars today that SpaceX filed the application on February 1, 2019.

If each end-user Earth station provides Internet service to one building, SpaceX could eventually need authorization for more than 1 million stations in the US. SpaceX job listings describe the user terminal as “a high-volume manufactured product customers will have in their homes.”

“These user terminals employ advanced phased-array beam-forming and digital processing technologies to make highly efficient use of Ku-band spectrum resources by supporting highly directive, steered antenna beams that track the system’s low-Earth orbit satellites,” SpaceX’s new application says. “Consistent with SpaceX’s space station authorization, these Earth stations will transmit in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band and receive in the 10.7-12.7 GHz band… SpaceX Services seeks authority to deploy and operate these Earth stations throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.”

Each user terminal “will communicate only with those SpaceX satellites that are visible on the horizon above a minimum elevation angle,” the application says.

“The proposed user terminal is a flat phased array capable of steering its beams to track SpaceX’s NGSO satellites passing within its field of view,” the application also says. “As the terminal steers the transmitting beam, it also adjusts the power to maintain a constant level at the receiving antenna of its target satellite, compensating for variations in antenna gain and path loss associated with the steering angle.”

We contacted SpaceX about the application and will update this story if we get a response.

“Ambitious timetable”

SpaceX asked the FCC for quick approval to support the company’s “ambitious timetable for launching satellites and deploying broadband services.”

“Granting this application would serve the public interest by helping to speed broadband deployment throughout the United States by authorizing the ground-based component of SpaceX’s satellite system,” SpaceX wrote.

In addition to user terminals, SpaceX plans a smaller number of gateway Earth stations to “provide the necessary communications links back from the SpaceX satellites to the global Internet,” according to a previous SpaceX filing. SpaceX has estimated that it will deploy “several hundred” of these gateway stations across the US to be “co-located with or sited near major Internet peering points to provide the required Internet connectivity to the satellite constellation.” SpaceX also plans two tracking telemetry and control (TT&C) stations in the US, one on the East Coast and another on the West Coast.

While the latest application focuses on the US, SpaceX plans to provide broadband service globally. SpaceX hasn’t provided a specific availability date, but a Reuters report in October 2018 said SpaceX’s “goal of having Internet service available in 2020 is ‘pretty much on target’ with an initial satellite launch by mid-2019.”

FCC rules require the launch of 50 percent of satellites within six years of authorization and all of them within nine years unless a waiver is granted.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk fired some senior managers from the Starlink project in mid-2018, reportedly to maintain his aggressive deployment schedule. In December, SpaceX reportedly raised $500 million to help pay for the project. SpaceX has said its broadband satellites will provide gigabit speeds and latencies as low as 25ms, similar to cable or fiber systems.



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