As launch nears,SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet gets big change approval

SpaceX's plans to bring its internet-beaming satellites closer to Earth have been given the go-ahead, paving the way for speedier, less technically complex wireless broadband. The SpaceX Starlink satellite network is due to begin deployment from May, with the first hardware being launched into orbit.

SpaceX got permission from the FCC to launch a satellite internet service last year, a not-inconsiderable plan to significantly expand the company's business model. The initial roadmap saw 4,425 individual satellites coming together to form a huge constellation, in the process bringing connectivity to areas that would traditionally have missed out on anything close to high-speed broadband.

Plans change, though, and after that approval was granted SpaceX realized that it could run things differently. Rather than 4,425 satellites orbiting from at least 690 miles up above the planet, a much closer orbit for a significant number was suggested. Based on the initial findings of test satellites, a number of advantages could be unlocked by reducing the orbit to as little as 342 miles, SpaceX told the FCC.

Lower orbit, better service

The potential benefits are several, SpaceX argued. For a start, fewer satellites would be required to deliver the same level of service. In fact, the company said, it could cut the constellation to 4,409 units. That reduction of sixteen may not sound like much, but when you're talking about the price of a non-geostationary orbit satellite and the launch required to deploy it, it adds up quickly.

By bringing 1,584 satellites previously authorized for a 690 mile orbit to 342 miles, meanwhile, latency could be cut, too. SpaceX says that it could see times trimmed to 15 milliseconds, an important aspect in delivering satellite broadband that's competitive with traditional wireline services.

A crowded band

While the FCC may have gone for SpaceX's argument, rival satellite networks weren't so impressed. Several companies petitioned the FCC to reject the request, arguing that it could present either a collision risk with their satellites or interfere with the wireless frequencies they use.

SpaceX countered that its satellites would be able to move out of the way of a potential collision. In fact, it pointed out, lower Earth orbit satellites are more rapidly pulled down to burn up in the atmosphere if they fail, compared to those in higher orbits. That could have a big impact on reducing dangerous space garbage, which has previously presented a hazard to the International Space Station among other projects.

According to SpaceX, operating satellites at the 342 mile orbit altitude will lead to a 100-percent success rate of post-mission disposal in under five years. Its casualty risk assessment for the potential risk to human life from re-entry "meets, or exceeds, the NASA standard of 1 in 10,000" the FCC says. Indeed, SpaceX claims that more than 98-percent of its constellation – in fact, all units bar the initial deployment of up to 75 satellites – will have no components capable of surviving atmospheric re-entry.

There still a long way to go

We're a fair way off being able to cancel our Comcast or AT&T broadband and sign up to SpaceX for internet service. The FCC has given SpaceX a six year window to get at least half of its total satellite constellation deployed, else it risks its overall approval. The first are scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida in May 2019.