FCC Approves SpaceX's Ambitious Plan to Bring Satellite-Based Broadband to the Masses

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, over Lompoc, Calif., from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in the company's first West Coast launch of the year. (Len Wood/The Santa Maria Times via AP)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday approved an application by Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide satellite broadband service in the U.S. and around the world, in hopes that the move will increase high-speed broadband access and competition.

“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 in a press release. The approval is contingent on SpaceX complying with FCC rules.

The FCC has approved similar requests this past year by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat, all of which hope to gain access to the U.S. market to provide broadband service using satellite technology. That technology, the FCC said, “holds promise to expand Internet access, particularly in remote and rural areas across the country.”

Thursday’s SpaceX approval represents the first of its kind for a new generation of large, non-geostationary satellite orbit, fixed-satellite service systems. The FCC says it is also in the process of evaluating similar requests from other companies.

More specifically, the federal agency authorized SpaceX to “construct, deploy, and operate a proposed non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite system comprising 4,425 satellites for the provision of fixed-satellite service (FSS) around the world.” The FCC will require SpaceX to launch half of those satellites within the next six years.

According to The Verge, SpaceX co-founder and CEO Elon Musk “has been discussing a micro-satellite constellation for providing broadband internet for years, and in 2017 the company began accelerating its efforts by meeting regularly with the FCC and applying for a license that would allow it to operate in an unused portion of the FCC-regulated broadband spectrum.

SpaceX, which faces steep competition from space Internet provider OneWeb, plans to call the service Starlink.

“We appreciate the FCC’s thorough review and approval of SpaceX’s constellation license,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “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.”

A profile of the company in the Wall Street Journal  last year revealed that SpaceX is “putting steep revenue expectations on a nascent satellite-internet business it hopes will eventually dwarf the rocket division and help finance its goal of manned missions to Mars.” According to the WSJ article, SpaceX hopes to have more than 40 million subscribers to its satellite-internet business, which could bring in more than $30 billion in revenue by 2025.

If all goes as planned, SpaceX will begin launching operational satellites next year.