SpaceX plans to begin testing its high-speed satellite broadband later this year
Not content with disrupting just the spaceflight industry, SpaceX looks to have its sights set on upending traditional broadband services as well.
More than two years ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced the NewSpace company’s intention to build an internet constellation, consisting of several thousand satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), providing 1 gigabit-per-second (1 Gbps) broadband to customers across the globe. The company plans to begin on-orbit tests later in 2017 and begin full launch operations in 2019 through 2024.
Gaining political support
In a Senate hearing on May 3, 2017, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs, addressed the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, outlining the company’s goal of becoming a satellite broadband internet service provider (ISP).
“We plan to design, develop, produce, launch, and operate a constellation of 4,000 satellites,” Cooper said to the committee. “These will provide high-speed, low-latency, and affordable broadband to the underserved, and unserved, populations throughout the United States and abroad.
The company hopes to bring broadband service to the 34 million Americans, 23 million of which are in rural areas, who are currently unserved by traditional broadband operators. SpaceX feels it is in a unique position to leverage its ability to vertically integrate the entire process, from design through launch and operations to low running costs while still providing the high speeds customers expect.
However, in order for the company to be treated like other broadband service providers, SpaceX contends a change in rules and regulations will be necessary so that satellite services aren’t treated unfairly when compared to its terrestrial counterparts.
Bringing satellite service to customers involves far more than simply launching a multitude of satellites and providing internet access. Indeed, the greatest hurdle to large-scale endeavors like satellite internet service is often the red tape imposed by governmental regulatory agencies.
With SpaceX planning to greatly increase its launch cadence, going from one launch per month to potentially one every few days, the company posits a change in the licensing process from the FAA and FCC will be imperative if such a schedule is to be maintained. The processes those agencies follow, who are responsible for granting launch and radio frequency licenses, are a significant impediment to a heightened cadence, and Cooper said that SpaceX is eager to work with the government to streamline the workflow.
Moreover, the very definition of broadband service itself may need to be re-worked so as to not exclude satellite internet service from consideration from government investment projects. Historically, satellite data services have not been classified as broadband due to their high latency and comparatively low data rates.
SpaceX, though, argues its service will be considerably different than other offerings.
Not all satellite internet service is the same
While technology advancements have increased the speed of computer processors from single-digit megahertz to today’s state-of-the-art silicon that can clock-in at thousands of times faster, one thing has not changed: the speed of light.
The speed at which information can flow through fiber optic cable, copper, or even the vacuum of space cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Though 186,000 miles per second (300,000 kilometers per second) is incredibly fast, even Earthly distances can impart a delay, or latency, in the communications stream.
For instance, if the broadband satellite is in geostationary orbit 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) above the equator, communications would take at least a quarter of a second to make the round trip. This assumes that the device is directly under the satellite and there are no other devices or mediums – routers, switches, fiber optic cabling, microwave links, or even copper cabling – between it and the satellite.
Considering there is likely to be a significant angular separation between the satellite and ground station, plus other network infrastructure, it is reasonable to expect there to be a least a half of a second of latency.
Though this delay may be largely unnoticed in traditional web browsing, it seriously degrades real-time communications, such as video conferencing, voice over IP (VoIP), and live video streaming services.
Rather than place its satellites in geostationary orbit above the equator, SpaceX plans to launch a constellation of 4,425 satellites in a much lower orbit of 690 miles (1,110 kilometers) to 823 miles (1,325 kilometers).
This lower altitude translates to less distance for the communications to travel and would be usable for even real-time needs. In fact, SpaceX indicates a latency of less than 35 milliseconds, which is comparable to many Earthbound ISPs.
Additionally, with several satellites being within view of a receiving station, the SpaceX service will be able to address the need for higher data capacities.
Operating a satellite-based internet service does not come without risk, especially for one the size SpaceX wants to field. The company plans to launch a prototype later in 2017, with another in early 2018.
Beyond needing to design, build, and launch such a large fleet of spacecraft, the 4,425 satellites themselves represent a significant concern. Operating in the congested environment of LEO, a sizable satellite constellation greatly increases the number of active spacecraft and may enhance the risk of collision. It’s a worry of many in the industry.
There is also a concern about the finite amount of licensable spectrum that can be used for such a large undertaking. With SpaceX not being the only company vying to provide worldwide satellite broadband service, the limited frequency space becomes even more precious.
However, should the regulatory and engineering hurdles be overcome, SpaceX may be able to count another industry it was able to disrupt.
“Our goal is to provide fiber-like services at market-prevailing prices, with a different construct of a satellite architecture,” stated Cooper.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.
The issue of spectrum looks very serious. Cellphone services rely on the short range to the towers to allow many users to use the same frequencies. This service would put many more users within range of the same satellite and require a much larger spectrum allocation to serve them. The FCC would have difficulty supporting anything that would create a monopoly. We have too little competition among ISPs now and this doesn’t look like a solution.
An interesting concept. The number of satellites is something like 5+ times greater than what Teledesic had proposed. I have a clear memory of the spectrum regulatory hurdles that project needed to overcome at WRC-95 and WRC-97. I’d really care to know where SPACEX plans to find the necessary spectrum to enable this project.