Starlink is currently in the beta stage and providing regular service to just 10,000 customers or so. But SpaceX is hurtling ahead to expand its coverage substantially by the end of the year, and it scored a notable victory toward that effort when the FCC approved launching satellites at a lower orbit.
Starlink Seeking to Expand
The FCC had already approved Starlink to operate more than 1,500 satellites—about a third of what the company initially intends—at an orbit of 550 kilometers. Those current satellites have allowed SpaceX to provide broadband internet service to North American and European areas remote enough that dependable high-speed internet service had been unavailable prior to Starlink. Starlink needs to launch more satellites if it will reach its goal of being fully mobile by the fourth quarter of 2021, and SpaceX had applied to the FCC to update its license to allow even more satellites at the 550-kilometer orbit.
Competition Opposes Expansion at That Orbit
The FCC was unable to provide a fast turnaround on that request, however. Soon after, it received more than 200 public comments expressing concern and objecting to the change. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that many of those objections were from competing internet service providers who currently or intend to provide satellite-based service. Many of the concerns dealt with potential radio interference, and a notable complaint came from Amazon, which operates Project Kuiper, HughesNet, and MetroNet. It worried that allowing additional Starlink satellites at that distance would result in congestion for all involved.
FCC Grants SpaceX Request
On Tuesday, April 27, the FCC informed SpaceX and the public that it had granted the request to position more satellites at the lower orbit. The FCC fully assessed the concerns via a dedicated commission, which published a 57-page report. According to the report, the commission found that the modification to the license would not cause significant interference issues. It also noted that the modification would allow for a better user experience through higher speeds and lower latency due to the elevation angle of the antennas at the SpaceX earth stations. The approval did come with some conditions, however.
FCC Imposes Conditions on SpaceX
The FCC approval did involve a number of conditions that Starlink must adhere to, and these involve a report filed with the FCC every six months. The report must include details of collision-avoidance maneuvers taken by satellites at that orbit and how effective they were. It must also include information about satellites that failed or experienced other issues. The FCC filing noted that more than 40 of the satellites already launched were terminated due to failure or due to premature deorbiting. The maximum number of 4,408 satellites allowed by Starlink was not increased by this ruling.
But More Regulatory Battles Expected to Come
Nevertheless, Starlink will want to expand again. It already has plans to launch more satellites—and not just thousands but tens of thousands. There will no doubt be more regulatory challenges to come—and not just between the FCC and SpaceX but with the public as well. Many of these concerns will no doubt be legitimate. There has never been a private satellite network quite like this. There will undoubtedly be problems and issues that are not even foreseen yet. However, a fair bit of gamesmanship may be present too as the competition jockeys for position