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Starlink satellites
SpaceX’s two prototype Starlink satellites are seen on either side of their carrier in advance of February’s launch. (SpaceX via YouTube)

The Federal Communications Commission says it has approved SpaceX’s application to provide broadband internet access via thousands of Starlink satellites — a new breed of spacecraft that’s currently under development at the company’s Seattle-area facilities.

SpaceX launched its first test prototype satellites, known as Tintin A and B, as secondary payloads last month. The California-based company plans to put 4,425 spacecraft into low Earth orbit for the first phase of what’s intended to be a low-cost satellite internet service.

“This is the first approval of a U.S.-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” the FCC said today in a statement.

SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said she appreciated “the FCC’s thorough review and approval of SpaceX’s constellation license.”

“Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking, this is an important step toward SpaceX building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected,” Shotwell said in an emailed statement.

When SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, unveiled the plan in 2015 during a Seattle visit, he said he expected to put “a useful Version 1 that has global coverage” into service by around 2020. He estimated it’d cost $10 billion to $15 billion “to build a full version of the system.”

Over the past three years, SpaceX has recruited hundreds of engineers to work on the satellite project at facilities in Redmond, Wash. Redmond serves as one of the sites for ground stations that are designed to link up with the prototype satellites.

The satellite service is seen as a key revenue generator for Musk’s vision of sending thousands of settlers to the Red Planet, and eventually building a city on Mars. But Musk isn’t the only one chasing the satellite internet market:

OneWeb, Space Norway and Telesat are among other ventures that have received FCC approval to provide satellite broadband services. They are targeting the same general time frame that Musk has in mind, if not the same ultimate goal.

In its authorization memo, the FCC rejected challenges to SpaceX’s application from OneWeb, Telesat and other potential competitors. However, the commission said its approval was conditioned on SpaceX coordinating its efforts with International Telecommunications Union, which plays a lead role in global satellite operations.

The FCC also said it’ll have to sign off on SpaceX’s plan to mitigate orbital debris — a concern that was raised by NASA. It set a 2024 deadline for SpaceX to get at least half of the 4,425 authorized satellites into orbit, and a 2027 deadline for completing the constellation.

Here’s today’s FCC statement on the authorization for SpaceX:

“The Federal Communications Commission approved an application by Space Exploration Holdings, doing business as SpaceX, to provide broadband services using satellite technology in the United States and around the world.  With this action, the Commission takes another step to increase high-speed broadband availability and competition in the United States.

“This is the first approval of a U.S.-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.  SpaceX proposed a satellite system comprised of 4,425 satellites and was granted authority to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands to provide global Internet connectivity.

“The Memorandum Opinion, Order and Authorization today outlines the conditions under which SpaceX is authorized to provide service using its proposed NGSO FSS satellite constellation.  Specifically, the Order specifies the conditions to ensure compliance with Commission rules, and to protect other operations in the requested frequency bands.

“Over the past year, the FCC has approved requests by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat to access the United States market to provide broadband services using satellite technology that holds promise to expand Internet access, particularly in remote and rural areas across the country. These approvals are the first of their kind for a new generation of large, non-geostationary satellite orbit, fixed-satellite service systems, and the Commission continues to process other, similar requests.”

For further reference, the FCC listed IBFS File Nos. SAT-LOA-20161115-00118 and SAT-LOA-20170726-00110, and Call Signs S2983 and S3018

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