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Starlink constellation
A simulation shows how a 4,425-satellite constellation could be deployed for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service. (Mark Handley / University College London)

The Federal Communications Commission today approved SpaceX’s proposed revisions in its plan to put thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit to provide global broadband connectivity, clearing the way to start launching satellites next month.

SpaceX already had authorization for 4,425 Starlink satellites that would use Ku- and Ka-band radio spectrum to beam internet data, but last November, the company asked the FCC to sign off on a plan that would put more than a third of the satellites in 550-kilometer-high (340-mile-high) orbits rather than the previously approved 1,150-kilometer (715-mile) orbits.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to add another wave of more than 7,500 satellites in even lower orbits to enhance the constellation’s coverage.

Rival companies working on their own low-Earth-orbit constellations, including the international OneWeb consortium and Kepler Communications, raised concerns about SpaceX’s proposal to modify its satellites’ orbital arrangement. They said the readjusted orbits could increase the potential for interference with their planned communications systems. But the FCC accepted SpaceX’s claims that it would avoid causing interference and overruled the objections.

Other objections focused on whether SpaceX’s lower-orbiting satellites might pose a collision risk. The FCC also accepted SpaceX’s reassurances on that issue.

“SpaceX claims, because all its satellites have propulsion and are maneuverable to prevent collisions, they are considered to pose zero risk to any other satellites in this orbital region,” the FCC said in today’s order and authorization. Regulators also took note of SpaceX’s assertion that the satellites in 550-kilometer orbits will dispose of themselves within five years, due to the effects of atmospheric drag.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, praised the FCC’s action in an emailed statement:

“This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service. Starlink production is well underway, and the first group of satellites have already arrived at the launch site for processing.”

SpaceX says that first wave of satellites will be launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida no earlier than May.

The company’s facility in Redmond, Wash., has been playing the lead role in developing and producing Starlink satellites. Last year, the satellite development team went through a management shakeup that was aimed at accelerating progress on the multibillion-dollar project and moving forward with design revisions.

In addition to the satellite clearances, SpaceX has submitted an application to operate up to a million user terminals as well as its first six ground-based gateways to provide the necessary communications links back from the satellites to the global internet. Two of those gateways will be in Washington state, in Redmond and North Bend, and the constellation’s telemetry, tracking and command station would be in Brewster, Wash.

SpaceX has said an initial version of its Starlink service could offer high-speed connectivity starting in the 2020-2021 time frame. SpaceX is required to put half of its constellation’s satellites into operation by 2024. To facilitate that task, SpaceX is laying the groundwork for its super-heavy-lift Starship launch system in Texas.

Schemes to provide internet access from above have been proliferating over the past few years. SpaceX and OneWeb are generally judged to have made the most progress on their plans. Kepler Communications, a 2016 graduate of the Techstars Seattle startup incubator, is focusing on Internet of Things connectivity. This month, Amazon acknowledged that it’s planning its own satellite broadband network, code-named Project Kuiper. Other potential players in the market include Telesat, LeoSat, Boeing and Facebook.

Alphabet’s Loon and HAPSMobile, a joint venture involving SoftBank Corp. and Aerovironment, highlighted a different approach to the high-speed connectivity challenge this week when they announced a collaboration to provide broadband access from balloons and solar-powered, high-altitude drones.

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