The Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX’s application to roll out a million user terminals in the US to connect with its growing Starlink satellite broadband network.
The approval gives SpaceX a 15-year “blanket license for the operation of up to 1,000,000 fixed earth stations that will communicate with its non-geostationary orbit satellite system”.
According to SpaceX’s license, the million units will measure 0.48 meters in diameter and will be manufactured by SpaceX.
Speaking at a satellite conference recently, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the user terminal would look like a “little UFO on a stick” with motors that automatically swivel the thin, flat disc to optimally point to the Starlink satellites.
Musk said the terminals should be simple enough for general users to install and that there will be just two setup instructions: plug in socket, point at sky.
Aside from automatically tracking the satellites, the user terminals use phased-array beam-forming and digital processing to efficiently use Ku-band spectrum.
SpaceX’s license for a million user terminals is another piece in its plan to launch as many as 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.
Last week, SpaceX launched its sixth batch of 60 Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket, bringing Starlink’s total satellite count to 360, or 40 less than what Musk believes will enable minor coverage of the US. The next batch of 60 Starlink satellites is expected to launch in April.
SpaceX hopes to offer a North American broadband service in 2020 and to achieve global coverage in 2021.
While one million user terminals doesn’t sound much for a nation with 120 million households, Musk says the Starlink satellite broadband service aims only to deliver coverage to 3% to 4% of the US population that haven’t been reached by traditional broadband providers. At 3% coverage of all households, Starlink could serve around 3.6 million households.
Musk argued that Starlink won’t be a huge threat to telcos. “In fact it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble dealing with with landlines or even with cell radio stations,” he said.
SpaceX has also asked the FCC to allow it to bid for grants under the $16bn Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The regulator has put the question to the public, noting last week that SpaceX contends that its satellite service can meet its low-latency threshold of a round-trip in under 100 milliseconds. Musk says Starlink will have a latency of 20 milliseconds.
SpaceX currently has 16 vacancies open for roles related to building the user terminals at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. According to a posting for a Starlink hardware development engineer, SpaceX is “developing millions of devices for end users to link our customers to our satellites”.