SpaceX PAZ/TinTin launch (Source: SpaceX)

SpaceX Starlink broadband satellite project taking shape

Forward progress on SpaceX’s massive global satellite broadband service is evident in Twitter, job listings and public statements by company officials, with initial engineering checks, open hiring, and a pass on federal funding all in the news this week.  SpaceX plans to launch 4,400 plus satellites for starters to deliver low-latency, gigabit speed broadband to the world, using the revenues to ultimately fund Mars colonization.

Initial broadband tests using a pair of SpaceX pathfinder satellites launched earlier this year, dubbed TinTin A and B, are “good enough to play fast response video games,” tweeted CEO and company founder Elon Musk, with latency in the 25ms range.  A second round of test satellites will go up before production StarLink satellites are launched, judging from a follow-up tweet from Musk.

Each weighing in at about 400 kilograms and 1.1m x 0.7m x 0.7m, TinTin A and B were launched in February 2018.  The pair provide about 15 minutes of test time per day to a set of test sites along the West Coast of the U.S., with the primary one in Redmond, Wash. The Washington facility was opened in January 2015 and has seen a rapid spike in open positions, according to Thinknum.  The office has gone from roughly 60 or so open positions per month in October 2016 to an average of over 100 open positions per month in January 2018 and beyond.

SpaceX plans to build both satellites and end-user ground equipment (terminals) in-house, requiring factories to produce a lot of hardware.  Musk has favored keeping production in-house as much as possible in his other businesses, Tesla and SpaceX, so it should be no surprise that he wants to build everything rather than farm out major pieces to third-parties.

Such an approach promises to drive down the cost of equipment and monthly service, one that SpaceX believes will bring pricing down so unserved and underserved populations can afford it, both in the United States and around the world.  The company will forgo Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Connect America Fund II money, says Space News.

Under Connect America Fund II, the FCC will dole out roughly $2 billion over a 10 year period, with applications having to go through a lot of paperwork to bid.  SpaceX may have been deterred as much by some of the required financial reporting requirements and the time it will take to build its satellite network. The company says the full buildout of 4,425 satellites won’t be completed until 2024.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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