SpaceX Starlink stack ready for deployment (Source: SpaceX)

Starlink’s latest shuffle: More orbits, more launches

Another month, another change to the SpaceX Starlink satellite broadband constellation. Space News has racked up a couple of reports on the latest requested modifications to Starlink’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license and the company’s aspirational plans to launch a whopping 24 flights in 2020 to put satellites in the sky for global broadband coverage.

In an August 30 FCC filing, SpaceX wants to triple the number of orbital planes Starlink uses, moving from 24 to 72 per Space News. Spreading out satellites across more orbits would more rapidly enable coverage for the United States, including the continental United States, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands, Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. SpaceX said the new distribution may require as half as many launches necessary to turn up service for the U.S.

SpaceX says it can distribute a Falcon 9 load of 66 satellites across three planes, putting 22 satellites per orbit. The company went on to claim in the FCC filing that the new distribution would provide broadband coverage across the southern United States by the end of the 2020 hurricane season with fuller coverage to other territories (and likely the rest of the world) by the end of the 2021 hurricane season.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX has essentially called an audible for its deployment plans since its initial FCC license request. In November 2018, the company filed an update to its FCC license to place satellites at an altitude of 550 kilometers, lower than its original request of around 1,100 kilometers. The number of planes and satellites per planes changed from an original 32 orbital planes and 50 satellites per plane to 24 planes and 66 satellites per plane.

Earlier this year, SpaceX announced it would simplify its satellites from supporting Ku-band and Ka-band frequencies to simply using Ku-band in its first generations of satellites. Before the May launch of the Starlink’s initial 60 satellites, Elon Musk said the first generation would not include optical cross-links, instead using a ground station or “ground bounce” to move data. Removal of in-orbit optical cross-links means initial claims of “faster than fiber” performance through Starlink are off the table and won’t be relevant until such time as a future generation of hardware rolls them back in.

The launch cadence for Starlink is expected to pick up significantly in the next 16 months. SpaceX could conduct up to four Starlink launches by the end of this year according to its latest round of FAA paperwork. But that’s nothing compared to 2020. SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said the company could average two launches per month, Space News reports.

Conducting 24 successful Starlink launches would put enough satellites into orbit for Starlink to cover “most of the world” and 30 launches would cover the entire world. Musk has said Starlink needs around 1000 or so satellites available in order to conduct a sustainable business.

There are still many unanswered Starlink questions. Has the company built and sufficiently tested a $200 to $300 easily installable end-user terminal? Has SpaceX started to produce such hardware in quantity and of sufficient quality? Musk described a “pizza box” sized square flat panel antenna that could simply be pointed at the sky, capable of being setup without a truck roll for installation. If this is the case, will sales be conducted online via website? Thought “Big Box” distribution channels such as Best Buy and Staples? Both? Who will handle customer support and the inevitable questions from installation problems?

Will SpaceX even start with direct-to-consumer sales? Enterprise, vertical markets, and telecom backhaul for wireless networks are all potentially lucrative sectors, with business customers paying more but expecting more in the form of reliable hardware, services, and service level agreements (SLAs) for uptime, bandwidth, and latency.

How does SpaceX plan to compete against OneWeb and its growing ecosystem of equipment manufacturers, VARs, resellers and telecom connections? How large of a direct sales force will it have to work with enterprise customers? What VAR relationships has it establish to move into verticals such as maritime, aviation, and ground transportation?

If SpaceX plans to shower the world with global broadband connectivity by the end of 2020, it will need to have answers to most of these questions very soon, especially if it expects to start generating revenue from paying customers in short order.

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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