SpaceX Reveals More Details About Global Satellite Broadband Plans

The SpaceX Dragon in orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon in orbit.

SpaceX hasn't shared much about its plans for building a global satellite internet network since January 2015 when Elon Musk announced he was opening a new office in Seattle focused on:

"Creating global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date."

But what exactly did he have in mind? And just how much "larger" are we talking about here?

SpaceX last week filed with the FCC requesting the necessary broadcast licenses - so now at last we know just how big of a network SpaceX has in mind. And it is indeed massive!

From the SpaceX application (as archived by ArsTechnica):

"An Initial Deployment of 1,600 satellites will operate at a single orbital altitude, with a Final Deployment of 2,825 satellites operating at four additional altitudes for a total of 4,425 operational satellites. With deployment of the first 800 satellites, SpaceX will be able to provide widespread U.S. and international coverage for broadband services. Once fully optimized through the Final Deployment, the system will be able to provide high bandwidth (up to 1 Gbps per user), low latency broadband services for consumers and businesses in the U.S. and globally."

The scale of this proposed network dwarfs the 900 satellite network being developed by OneWeb, or the 66 satellite "Iridium Next" swarm slated to begin deployment next year.

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The satellites in the SpaceX network will be orbiting in a swarm 715 - 823 miles overhead, low enough to deliver communication latencies of just 25ms - 35ms. This is similar to the current best LTE cellular networks, and vastly better than the 600ms traditional geosynchronous satellites 22,000 miles away can offer.

But can SpaceX actually pull this off?

The Hard Part is On The Ground

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently shared at a space industry conference that the proposed satellite constellation is actually still a research project, and is not actually a sure thing:

The time frame is pretty TBD. We are looking at building a broadband constellation in LEO, low Earth orbit. We’re definitely in the development phase, although we’re not really committed to that right now.

The big challenge seems to be designing an affordable ground antenna system.

Unlike traditional satellite systems that lock onto a single satellite fixed in geosynchronous orbit, a low-earth-orbit (LEO) swarm like SpaceX is designing requires an antenna capable of tracking multiple satellites in motion as they whiz by overhead:

There have been a number of attempts at doing something like this, and all of them have largely failed. So you don’t go and spend $5-plus billion on a system that’s not going to be a benefit to folks. We are developing test-flight satellites that we hope to launch next year. But really the key for us is the technology for the user equipment. If I can’t build an antenna that’s going to install easily on your roof or in your yard for a couple of hundred dollars, then it’s going to be very difficult to compete with the existing systems.

So we really need to crack that code. We’re working, but we haven’t quite cracked that yet. Once we’ve done that, then we will pretty much go all in on the constellation. Sorry to be a little vague on it, but we’re still trying.

It is great to see SpaceX aiming to build such affordable ground terminals, and that they are targeting consumers and not just commercial deployments.

It is not at all clear yet whether SpaceX will officially or even informally support mobile deployments, making the future network viable for RVers.

SpaceX Satellite Broadband: Still Years Away

The 66 satellites in the Iridium constellation are synchronized so that at least one will always be overhead, anywhere on the globe. Now imagine what a 4,425 satellite swarm might look like...

The 66 satellites in the Iridium constellation are synchronized so that at least one will always be passing overhead, anywhere on the globe. Now imagine what a 4,425 satellite swarm might look like!

Gigabit speeds, low latency, and global coverage - it sounds like a dream!

And for the moment, it still is.

Even if all the test flights next year go perfectly, the earliest SpaceX might begin to launch its network will be 2019, with the very earliest possible consumer service rolling out in 2020.

But in space, schedules tend to slip - often by years.

So while it is exciting to think about this future technology, it is important to not lose sight of the options available today.

By the time 2020 rolls around 5G cellular and several other new satellite networks will be deployed too - giving us a range of next generation choices.

The connectivity future is bright indeed!

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