SpaceX has received the thumbs-up from the Federal Communications Commission to operate up to one million ground-based Starlink terminals. The approval, granted on March 13 and revealed Tuesday, lets the company operate a series of ground-based terminals to provide its high-speed internet service.
The filing, spotted by ZDNet, lets the company operate its service in the contiguous United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Up to one million antennas, measuring 0.48 meters in diameter or one foot seven inches, will be allowed to operate and provide service for the next 15 years.
It's the latest step forward in SpaceX's plan to provide high speed, low latency satellite internet. Previous constellations have enabled rural and underserved communities access the internet by pointing a receiver to the sky and connecting with line of sight. These systems tend to be expensive, offer lower speeds than fiber-based alternatives, and a 2013 analysis found they can take up to 20 times longer to respond to requests.
SpaceX aims to solve these issues by launching a larger number of satellites at a lower altitude. The company has so far launched six batches of 60 satellites, and it's applied for permission to launch up to 42,000 craft. The commission has given the thumbs-up to licenses for 12,000 craft. For comparison, the Earth has around 5,000 craft in orbit including inactive ones. Starlink will operate at a lower altitude of 550 kilometers above the Earth, or 342 miles.
This approach is set to improve on traditional satellite internet. Speeds are targeting up to a gigabit, and latency is targeting below 10 milliseconds over time. Pricing is unclear, but company president Gwynne Shotwell has decried how people are paying $80 per month for bad internet services.
The approval could be the perfect timing for SpaceX to roll out its services. The company is aiming to start offering services for the northern United States and Canada this year, reaching the majority of the global population with its satellites in 2021.
The ground terminals described are key to accessing the service. CEO Elon Musk has described the terminal as looking like a "thin, flat, round UFO on a stick.” The product will come with “motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky.” The company's previous filings have compared it to the size of a pizza box. These terminals will provide services for a home or other large installation.
These contraptions have not yet been pictured, but Musk has already tried it out. In October 2019, five months after the first 60 satellites launched, Musk posted on Twitter using Starlink.
Starlink is not aimed at replacing internet for all. Musk explained during the Satellite 2020 conference this month that the company will target the "three or four percent hardest-to-reach customers" in rural and underserved areas. While that seems like a small figure, it's important to note that the United States has around 125 million households. Targeting even one percent of these could require SpaceX to apply for permission to install more terminals.
That's not the only place where SpaceX and the commission will need to align. The company has requested that Starlink be classed as a low-latency service, a move that could unlock up to $16 billion in federal subsidies. Competitors argue that Starlink is still relatively unproven, and supplying the funds could involve taking a large bet.
The Inverse analysis
The commission's approval will likely make a number of Starlink fans pleased. When Inverse spoke to Americans that want Starlink, a number of them expressed frustration with their current options. Poor service and slow speeds mean potential customers are willing to pay more just to leave their provider. Starlink is unlikely to become the internet service of choice for most, but for many communities it could finally offer an alternative.