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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is on board with SpaceX’s satellite plan. (Flickr Photo / FCCDotGov)

SpaceX’s plan to beam broadband services to America and the world via its Starlink satellite constellation got a big thumbs-up today from Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Pai’s endorsement isn’t exactly a surprise: The FCC already has given its approval to rival companies with similar plans, including OneWeb, Space Norway and Telesat.

Nevertheless, Pai’s praise probably made Valentine’s Day nicer for SpaceX, just days after the high-profile maiden launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket and days before the scheduled launch of the first prototype Starlink satellites.

Here’s how Pai put it in his statement:

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies. SpaceX’s application — along with those of other satellite companies seeking licenses or access to the U.S. market for non-geostationary satellite orbit systems — involves one such innovation. Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.”

Satellite internet access is already available, of course, but the satellites for those services are in orbits so high that latency — that is, the delay in light-speed transmission — becomes a negative factor, particularly for broadband applications such as voice-over-internet phone services.

The fact that Starlink’s satellites are designed for low Earth orbit could make Starlink and similar services much more attractive, particularly if the price is competitive.

SpaceX’s satellite operation is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. For what it’s worth, the company’s online employment database lists nearly 100 open positions in Redmond.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee, voiced her support for satellite internet services in a statement reported by Reuters. “The FCC should move quickly to facilitate these new services while underscoring our commitment to space safety,” she said.

Concerns about the potential for satellite collisions and cross-service interference had been raised during the regulatory process, but Pai’s reference to a “careful review” suggests that those issues have been addressed to the FCC’s satisfaction.

SpaceX’s two prototype satellites, Microsat 2a and 2b, are to be launched as secondary payloads aboard a Falcon 9 rocket set for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday. The primary payload is Spain’s Paz radar observation satellite.

All of the satellites will be initially deployed at an altitude of 511 kilometers (317 miles), but after initial checkout, SpaceX will gradually raise the orbits of its 400-kilogram (880-pound) prototypes to a 1,125-kilometer-high (700-mile-high) orbit.

Engineering teams will test how well the satellites communicate with mobile stations and ground stations, including SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond.

Operational satellites are to be launched starting next year, with limited commercial service expected to become available around 2020. Eventually, thousands of satellites would be put into low Earth orbit to provide internet services around the globe.

When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laid out the plan for Starlink in Seattle three years ago, he said that deploying the constellation could cost $10 billion to $15 billion, “maybe more.” He also said the revenue from satellite services would go toward his long-held vision of establishing a city on Mars.

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