Musk’s SpaceX set to get nod for satellite-based broadband network

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX, basking in the successful launch this month of its heavy rocket Falcon, the world’s most powerful rocket, won an endorsement on Wednesday from the top US communications regulator to build a broadband network using satellites.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday began circulating a proposal to fellow commissioners recommending approval of SpaceX’s application for a satellite-delivered internet service in the United States and worldwide.

”Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fibre optic cables and cell towers do not reach,” Pai said in a statement.

SpaceX told the FCC in a 1 February letter that it plans to launch a pair of experimental satellites on one of its Falcon 9 rockets. That launch, already approved by the FCC, is set for Saturday in California.

The rocket will carry the PAZ satellite for Hisdesat of Madrid, Spain and multiple smaller secondary payloads.

SpaceX plans to launch more than 4,420 small satellites into low orbit around the earth beginning next year, with full deployment expected by 2024, the company said in May 2017 testimony to the US Senate. That low-orbit position could deliver broadband speeds equal to current speeds from traditional providers, the company says.

 ”Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fibre optic cables and cell towers do not reach,” Musk said in a statement Wednesday. “And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.”

There are barriers to making broadband available in some rural areas. Overall, 73 per cent of Americans say they have a broadband connection at home, but only two-thirds (63 per cent) of rural Americans do, according to a May 2017 Pew Research Center survey.

SpaceX hopes to have more than 40 million subscribers to its satellite broadband service and bring in more than $30 billion in revenue by 2025, according to The Wall Street Journal, which obtained internal company documents last year.

That revenue is meant to help fund company founder Musk’s vision of sending missions to and inhabiting Mars.

Pai’s proposal requires a vote of the commissioners and it’s likely he will get a thumbs-up, as there are two other Republicans on the commission. ”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,” he said. “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.”

The FCC has approved applications by other companies including OneWeb Satellites, which is building a satellite factory at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park in Florida. A joint project with Airbus, OneWeb is currently building satellites in France and will use Russian Soyuz rockets to launch some of its satellites.SpaceX was not immediately available for comment.

On 6 February, SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, from Florida. The 23-story-tall jumbo rocket carried a Tesla Inc Roadster from the assembly line of Musk’s electric car company.

Pai said after a staff review he was urging approval for SpaceX, saying, ”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.”

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said satellite internet service shows great promise.

”They will multiply the number of satellites in the skies, creating extraordinary new opportunities … the FCC should move quickly to facilitate these new services while underscoring our commitment to space safety,” she said.

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