FCC greenlights SpaceX Starlink, other LEO satellite constellations

Last week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted formal market access to LEO satellite start-ups Kepler Communications and LeoSat along with Telesat Canada and SpaceX.  The biggest number of satellites that could be launched under the latest round of rulings are a whopping 7,518 by SpaceX for its StarLink broadband constellation adding to its initial 4,400 plus satellites it is racing to put up in the next three years.

Access to the U.S., one of the largest and most lucrative markets in the world, is a key milestone for any satellite company.  The FCC typically grants market access without hassles so long as there are no chances for RF interference with other services, with other interested parties –other satellite or other radio operators — weighing in with their concerns.

Toronto, Canada-based Kepler Communications currently offers high-speed bulk data transfer and Internet of Things (IoT) services. It has one pathfinder satellite in orbit today with a second satellite expected to be launched later this month onboard an India PSLV launch vehicle.  Kepler has raised $21 million to date and plans to put up at least 100 satellites for its operational constellation.

LeoSat is focusing its efforts on enterprise broadband, using a combination of radio and laser communications links on its up-to 108 satellite constellation to deliver private on-net data connections greater than 1 Gbps with performance potentially faster than terrestrial fiber optic cable. The Washington DC-based company says it has customer commitments of $1 billion.  LeoSat would give enterprise and government customers the ability setup secure, high-speed data links anywhere in the world.

Telesat is building an initial 117 satellite constellation to deliver broadband. It has a single pathfinder satellite in orbit and plans to award construction of satellites and the network to a vendor in the first half of next year. A LEO network provides Telesat with the ability to serve customers in Canada with much better options over traditional geosynchronous services.

SpaceX’s request to launch over 7,500 satellites is ambitious, especially given the company has only launched a pair of pathfinder satellites for its Starlink broadband network. It also recently revised its initial plans for its first generation 1,500+ satellites, simplifying the design from Ku/Ka-band to simply Ku, lowering the orbit of the satellites, and shuffling around how many satellites per orbital plane would provide coverage. Another group of satellites is expected to go into orbit in mid-2019 on a path to offer commercial service in 2020, but in order to build the number of satellites needed, SpaceX will either build their own factory or find a vendor who can rapidly build the hardware necessary.  

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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