The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday approved SpaceX’s request to fly satellites for its Starlink internet service at a lower orbit – but only under certain conditions.
Company rivals including Amazon, Viasat, Hughes Net, and OneWeb previously criticized SpaceX’s request to fly more satellites at a lower orbit. But they told Insider that the FCC’s conditions address their main concerns.
The approval means that SpaceX can eventually lower 2,814 satellites from 1,100 kilometres to 550 kilometres, although these satellites are not yet in orbit. The company already had permission to operate 1,584 satellites at this lower orbit.
Under the approval conditions, SpaceX must record how many times Starlink satellites come close to colliding with other spacecraft, and report it to the FCC every six months. Elon Musk’s aerospace company also must disclose the number of Starlink satellites that re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
All of these rivals are working to build satellite internet networks from low-Earth orbit satellites, geostationary satellites, or a mix of both. SpaceX currently has more than 1,350 satellites currently in orbit – the most of any of the companies. Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t launched any satellites yet, but plans to have a fleet of 3,236 in total.
Competitors had filed various responses to SpaceX’s request for a modification to its licence. Amazon’s Project Kuiper said in January that the change of satellite position would interfere with their own satellites and “smother competition in the cradle.”
An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s decision was a “positive outcome” because it “places clear conditions on SpaceX.”
The FCC’s conditions “address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the Commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low earth orbit,” the spokesperson said.
Viasat, which plans on putting 288 satellites into lower orbit by 2026, was particularly concerned about the number of satellites that SpaceX was blasting into space.
Launching more satellites could lead to a greater chance of collision, resulting in more space debris, which could be a “doomsday scenario for space,” Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s executive chairman and co-founder, told Insider on April 15.
Viasat was pleased the FCC confirmed Starlink satellites must be “reliable and safe,” John Janka, the company’s chief officer of global regulatory and government affairs, told Insider in a statement on Tuesday.
Viasat was also happy that the FCC recognized the need to monitor collision risk that Starlink’s constellation raised, Janka said.
In the filing, the FCC dismissed Viasat’s concerns about the collision risk of Starlink satellites and wrote “SpaceX’s debris mitigation plan is consistent with the public interest.” Viasat said in its statement that it was disappointed with the FCC on this point.
UK satellite company OneWeb, which has 182 satellites in orbit so far, also previously argued that SpaceX’s licence approval would create interference with other satellites.
OneWeb said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s approval was “a totally different deployment to their original licence,” but it “looks forward to continuing amicable and close in-flight coordination with SpaceX.”
A spokesperson from Hughes, another satellite company that argued against SpaceX’s licence, told Insider the company was still reviewing the FCC order.
McLaughlin told The Journal that Starlink’s engineers said they couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision and switched off the satellite’s autonomous collision-avoidance system. They did this so OneWeb could maneuver around the Starlink satellite without interference, McLaughlin said.
SpaceX fired back in its ex-parte FCC filing Tuesday, saying OneWeb itself had requested that it turn off its collision-avoidance system temporarily so that it could move its satellite.
According to SpaceX, OneWeb made this decision because OneWeb satellites need more time to coordinate and plan their maneuvers than Starlink satellites require, and the two companies were in communication throughout.
The two companies were working together “in good faith” and OneWeb “chose to publicly misstate the circumstances of the coordination” in The Journal’s article, SpaceX said.
OneWeb did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
SpaceX added that “the probability of collision never exceeded the threshold for a [collision-avoidance] maneuver, and the satellites would not have collided even if no maneuver had been conducted.”
SpaceX said its collision-avoidance system “was and remains fully functional at all times,” and that its satellite had conducted many similar maneuvers in the past in conjunction with OneWeb, “with no issues.”
At the meeting between FCC, OneWeb and SpaceX representatives on Tuesday, the two companies “agreed that they had conducted a successful coordination,” according to SpaceX.
It added that OneWeb offered to retract its previous statements.
Out of all the companies, Starlink is the one that has launched the most satellites into orbit.
Elon Musk’s space venture currently has more than 1,350 satellites in orbit, with plans to launch up to 42,000 by mid-2027. Eventually, Starlink — a subdivision of SpaceX — wants to wrap thousands of satellites around the Earth to build a global network.
Starlink’s “Better Than Nothing Beta” test went live in October and has since gained over 10,000 users across six different countries.
Starlink’s business model directly connects customers to the satellites — there are no telecommunications companies involved in between.
Users sign up to Starlink via its website. When the service is up and running in the area, subscribers receive an email to buy the kit. Starlink may even offer users $99 preorders, like it did in Australia, Mexico and parts of the US, where the network isn’t live yet.
Not everyone is fully on board with Starlink’s dominance. Local internet service providers in the US say Starlink is using “unproven” technology with its satellite constellation. They have asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to look into its application for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, for which Starlink was awarded $885 million.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper
Project Kuiper, a subsidiary of Amazon, came to light in 2018 when government filings revealed the tech giant was going ahead with building a global space-based internet service.
The project aims to blast 3,236 satellites to 630 kilometers in orbit, very close to Starlink’s satellites at 550 kilometres.
50% of its satellites should be operational by July 30, 2026.
It’s not yet clear what Project Kuiper’s satellites will look like or which rocket they will be launched on, but Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin could send them into orbit via its New Glenn rocket.
Sources told Insider in 2019 that Project Kuiper’s headquarters are a few miles from Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
The UK’s OneWeb
OneWeb is a British-owned satellite broadband provider that currently has 146 satellites at 1,200 km in orbit and plans to have 648 satellites in total to offer a global network.
The firm was rescued from bankruptcy by the UK government and India’s Bharti Group in November and now pledges to invest $1 billion in the company.
OneWeb wants to provide internet to the whole of the UK by June. Its most recent launch on March 25 will deliver internet coverage to the top of the globe down to the 50th degree latitude, covering countries such as Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, the Nordic countries, and northern Europe.
The UK firm offers a business-to-business model, whereby it provides satellite internet to telecommunications companies, which then distribute the service to customers.
Chris McLaughlin, chief of government, regulation and engagement at OneWeb told Insider the company has had discussions with the government about becoming part of the UK’s $6.9 billion Project Gigabit — just like Starlink.
OneWeb and Starlink satellites almost collided into each other in orbit on April 3 that could have sent thousands of debris pieces flying around space, adding to the space junk crisis.
McLaughlin told Insider on Monday it was “no one’s fault but a big challenge” to avoid this from happening.
Hughes Net, the biggest satellite internet provider in the US, relies on satellites positioned 22,500 miles away in geostationary orbit to beam internet back down to Earth.
The main difference between the low-Earth orbit satellites and the bigger geostationary (GEO) satellites is that the latter are much further away in orbit and as a result can cause second-long delays in video calls and other technology.
But GEO satellites are in a fixed position, so unlike LEO satellites, they don’t move around in orbit and target their internet service in one specific area.
Hughes, with more than 1.5 million subscribers, has six satellites in orbit, which cover various parts of North and South America and Canada, including Mexico, Brazil, and Chile.
Hughes Net spokesperson Sharyn Nerenberg told Insider the company is purely focused on providing internet to the Americas.
The last satellite Hughes launched was in June 2018 and it’s aiming to send another one into orbit, named Jupiter 3, in the second half of 2022. Nerenberg said Jupiter 3 is going to be the largest commercial satellite ever launched.
Those who sign up for Hughes Net receive a kit through the post and get it installed by an outsourced company.
Costs for Hughes satellite service range from $59.99 to $149.99 per month for 25 Mbps download speeds. The kit is priced at $249.99 with a $199 installation charge, taking the total purchase price to $449.98 — $50 cheaper than SpaceX’s Starlink.
Nerenberg also said Hughes offers community WiFi hotspots via its satellite network to small rural areas in Latin America for those who can’t afford a subscription.
Telesat, headed by Dan Goldberg, already has 15 GEO satellites more than 35,000 km (22,200 miles) above Earth.
The Canadian company is also planning a LEO constellation called “Lightspeed” — the first batch of 298 satellites, built by Thales Alenia Space, are expected to be launched by early 2023. The goal is to provide full global service by 2024.
Goldberg confirmed during the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum on April 6, per Space News, that Lightspeed would cost $5 billion. This much cheaper than SpaceX’s and Amazon’s projects which exceed the $10 billion mark.
He told Reuters on Sunday that Telesat is “in the sweet spot” with pricing.
In 2019, Telesat signed a launch deal with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to use its rockets, such as the proposed New Glenn, to blast its LEO satellites into orbit.
David Wendling, Telesat’s chief technical officer, told Reuters the company has three other launch deals in the pipeline.
Californian-based ViaSat operates five GEO satellites around 22,000 miles above the surface of the Earth.
It’s adding to this constellation at the start of 2022 by putting three “ultra-high capacity GEO satellites” into orbit, which will give global coverage by 2023, a ViaSat spokesperson told Insider.
ViaSat is also planning on putting 288 satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) by 2026.
Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s executive chairman and co-founder, told Insider on Thursday that having both GEO and LEO satellites complement each other.
He said ViaSat are trying to create a “multiorbital constellation where you use GEO satellites and LEO satellites in a way that look seamless to users.”
Dankberg gave an example of the benefits of using different orbital satellites for videos online: The LEO satellites can offer the latency — the delay between a user’s actions and the internet’s response — and the lower cost bandwidth from GEO satellites.
In December, Viasat asked the FCC to study the potential environmental impacts of Starlink. In response, Musk tweeted: “Starlink ‘poses a hazard’ to Viasat’s profits, more like it.”
Dankberg said it’s common for companies to become “frenemies” in the space industry. Despite having a launch contract with SpaceX, ViaSat is concerned about the thousands of satellites SpaceX is putting into orbit.
Launching more satellites leads to a higher chance of collision, resulting in more space debris which could be a “doomsday scenario for space,” according to Dankberg.
Eutelsat is a European satellite operator that has 39 GEO satellites positioned at 46,000 kilometres away in orbit.
The company currently provides internet to parts of Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East and plans to launch another satellite called Konnect VHTS, which will cover the rest of Europe.
Michel Azibert, Eutelsat’s deputy CEO, told Insider on Friday: “Konnect VHTS will be a game-changer, enabling Eutelsat to provide powerful connectivity seamlessly to the end user at a price comparable to those of terrestrial operators.”
Prices for Eutelsat’s satellite company range between €30 and €70 per month for speeds between 30 and 100 Mbps, with an upfront fee between €49 to €149 depending on the market, Azibert said.
He said the pricing was “well below Starlink’s and very well adapted to the rural markets that we are targeting in EMEA.”
Eutelsat’s satellites “are a reliable solution to cost-effectively address areas and regions where fiber will remain too costly to deploy,” he added.
Eutelsat, founded in 1977, sends its satellites into space from Vienna. The first satellite it launched was in 1983.
SpaceX and OneWeb’s satellites were dangerously close to colliding with each other in orbit last weekend, according to reports.
The Verge reported that it was the first known crash-avoidance incident for the two companies as they try to grow their new broadband-beaming networks in space.
The event occurred after OneWeb blasted a new batch of 36 satellites into orbit and had to dodge through an array of Starlinks to reach its targeted orbit.
The outlet said “red alerts” were sent from the US Space Force 18th Space Control Squadron to both companies. The US government agency found the satellites only 190 feet apart. A collision would have sent hundreds more pieces of debris flying around space. This could potentially also have led to further collisions with other nearby objects.
OneWeb’s satellites operate at an orbit roughly 550 km higher than SpaceX’s Starlink. This means OneWeb’s constellation must pass through SpaceX’s sea of satellites.
As both teams tried to coordinate, it was discovered that SpaceX disabled its automated AI-powered collision-avoidance system to give OneWeb the opportunity to drive its satellite out of the way, according to Chris McLaughlin, chief of government, regulation, and engagement at OneWeb.
McLaughlin spoke to Insider’s Kate Duffy last week to discuss OneWeb’s strategy. He addressed concerns relating to the way big space companies are launching thousands of satellites.
He said the practice is “not a responsible way forward for future generations,” adding that OneWeb is “adopting a more responsible use of space.”
OneWeb plans to have 648 satellites at 1,200 km in orbit in line with its goal to provide a global broadband service. The company’s most recent launch on March 25 took it up to 146 satellites.
Across the Atlantic, SpaceX is planning exactly the same thing. The only difference is that Musk’s company is way ahead of OneWeb. It currently has around 1,300 satellites at 550 kilometres in orbit and plans to launch 42,000 by mid-2027.
OneWeb plans to have 648 satellites at 1,200 km in orbit to provide a global service. The company’s most recent launch on March 25 took it up to 146 satellites.
“We’re beginning to think less is more,” said Chris McLaughlin, chief of government, regulation and engagement at OneWeb.
He told Insider that the main issue in the space industry right now is “the sheer number of satellites that Musk and Jeff Bezos want to put up.”
Amazon-founder Bezos hasn’t launched any satellites yet but aims to get a fleet of 3,236 in orbit in the near future for its Project Kuiper.
“[Musk and Bezos] both want to put them up in the same place at 550 km and have nobody else in their way,” McLaughlin said.
Thursday’s launch was the second out of five OneWeb launches this year to deliver internet coverage to the top of the globe down to the 50th degree latitude, according to McLaughlin. This includes Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, the Nordic countries, and northern Europe.
The fifth launch will be in June, when OneWeb aims to provide broadband to the whole of the UK. By mid-2022, areas down to 21 degrees latitude will be covered, McLaughlin said, including the rest of Europe and parts of Africa.
Put in comparison with Starlink, which operates across six countries worldwide, OneWeb seems to lag behind. But the London-based company says its tactics are deliberately slower.
“Do you want the low Earth orbit completely messed up because of collisions between two billionaires satellites?” McLaughlin said. “Or would you prefer a more gradualist approach, like OneWeb is doing?”
The way that the big space companies are launching thousands of satellites is “not a responsible way forward for the next generations to be able to benefit from space,” according to McLaughlin, who added that OneWeb is “adopting a more responsible use of space.”
How OneWeb’s technology works
OneWeb works around a business-t0-business model – it delivers internet service to existing telecommunications companies who then distribute the internet to homes and businesses. OneWeb will leave the pricing for the telecom firms to set because “they know their customers best,” McLaughlin said.
Musk’s SpaceX, on the other hand, targets consumers directly with its satellite internet. So far, it’s gained more than 10,000 users and already plans to connect moving vehicles, such as trucks and planes, to Starlink. Users can set up the $499 Starlink kit, including a tripod, a WiFi router, and a terminal, from their own home
“We are not going down the ‘send you a box and tell you to install it’ route,” said McLaughlin. Instead, OneWeb users may have a wifi antenna mounted on their house, rather than a satellite dish.
Like Starlink, OneWeb could be part of the UK’s government’s $6.9 billion Project Gigabit internet plan, which aims to provide faster broadband to more than 1 million homes and businesses in rural areas of the country. SpaceX reportedly took part in discussions with a UK minister on March 22.
McLaughlin confirmed that OneWeb is also included in the plans for Project Gigabit and has “held ministerial and other discussions.”
Neil Masterson said in an interview with CNBC on March 25 that the company “has been speaking to various elements of the government” and other organizations in the UK.
Now that the UK is joining the likes of Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and Canada’s Telesat, McLaughlin said it’s exciting for the British economy to have a slice of the space industry too.
“Who knew that Britain was in the space business?” he said.