SpaceX Starlink stack ready for deployment (Source: SpaceX)

SpaceX seeks mobile licensing for Starlink broadband services

Last week, SpaceX filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get a blanket license for “earth stations in motion” (ESIM) so it can deliver services outside of fixed locations in the United States to large vehicles, ships, and aircraft (No Teslas yet). If granted, the license would open several vertical markets for the company, significantly increasing its monthly revenue streams.

In the March 5, 2021 filing, SpaceX wants to deploy (sell) and operate dishes on vehicles in the U.S. and its territories, in the territorial waters of the U.S. and international waters worldwide, and U.S.-registered aircraft operating worldwide as well as non-registered U.S. aircraft operating in U.S. airspace.  The equipment would use the Starlink consumer terminal kit with the appropriate mountings for vehicles, ships, and aircraft, with installation through Starlink by “qualified installers” to ensure protection of the general public and people operating the vehicle and equipment.

SpaceX notes it must be careful where mobile Starlink terminals operate both within and outside of the US to avoid interference with NASA TDRSS data relay ground stations and a number of radio astronomy locations, as well as operations within another nation’s airspace. GPS and other geo-locations methods will be used to make sure Starlink terminals operate where they are supposed to by license and presumably by the service plan users pay for.

Starlink beta consumer users have tested the current bounds of the geo-location/geo-locking feature and have discovered they can easily move their dish within and on the edges of a particular “cell” of service. Venture outside of that area and service stops.  If granted, the license would enable SpaceX to offer consumers the ability to pick up and move dishes, a feature desired by RV owners and digital nomads alike. But mobility won’t come free and SpaceX hasn’t said what it might charge for “unlocking” a dish from an address.

On the road

Physically installing a Starlink dish on an RV, bus, or coach brings into play the question of who “qualified installers” will be.  SpaceX hasn’t indicated if intends to be the sole authority on installing dishes in vehicles or if it will license third parties to do so. The company has shown a preference to keep work in house as much as possible, enabling them to control quality and book the revenue, but it may choose to partner with select firms rather than deeply specialize into this area.

Teslas won’t be getting dishes, according to a tweet from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, saying the current equipment is “much too big.”  The current generation Starlink terminal also consumers a lot of power in operations, which would significantly impact a Tesla’s range if in operation for any length of time either on-the-move or at a fixed location without being plugged in.

Local and national emergency response organizations and the U.S. military are obvious customers for ESIM installations, as well as cellular companies with portable “tower on wheels” equipment to supplement service in large events and to restore service in case of disaster interruptions. Starlink provides several significant advantages over current GEO services, including a smaller equipment footprint, ease of operations, lower latency to benefit real time communications services, and more downlink bandwidth.

The high seas

Operation on the seas also begs the question if SpaceX will have a division to install Starlink dishes on larger recreational boats, yachts, cruise liners, and various commercial maritime operations from fishing fleets to container ships.  SpaceX has been operating Starlink dishes onboard its fleet of ships supporting Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon recovery operations.

Flying Starlink

Aviation service is currently being tested on a small number of SpaceX business jets. The business aviation sector would be very lucrative but would also require a specialized workforce to install Starlink gear as well as fine-tuned software to prevent Starlink service from operating over nations where it is not licensed.

Moving means big money

Unlocking SpaceX Starlink dishes from fixed locations opens numerous ways the company can charge for services both on the consumer and enterprise/government sectors.  Expect existing vendors currently raking in money from commercial aviation, maritime, and government mobile operations to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the SpaceX proposal.

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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