FCC authorizes SpaceX’s Starlink system: Employ on vehicles in motion

Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted SpaceX authorization to use its Starlink satellite internet system on vehicles in action — including cars, trucks, boats, and aircraft.

It’s a big win for SpaceX’s Starlink system, potentially opening up the service to a diverse range of use cases and customers.

SpaceX requested regulatory approval from the FCC in March of last year to allow Earth Stations in Motion (ESIM) Starlink terminals to be used in moving vehicles. To tap into the system and receive broadband internet coverage, customers must purchase a personal ground-based antenna, or user terminal, designed to connect with any orbiting Starlink satellites that happen to be overhead. Until now, those dishes have had to remain in a fixed location to access the system.

Now, the FCC has granted SpaceX’s request — as well as one from another satellite company, Kepler Communications — paving the way for a new class of user terminals that can connect to broadband-beaming satellites while on the move. While doing so, the FCC refused a petition from Dish Network that sought to prevent the companies from using frequency in the 12GHz band. However, the FCC will continue to analyze as it moves forward with rulemaking on the presence of ESIM devices in the 12GHz band and said Kepler and SpaceX would be subject to any future rules it sets.

The FCC argues that approving the new capability is in the public’s interest. “We agree with SpaceX and Kepler that the public interest would benefit by granting with conditions their applications,” the FCC wrote in its authorization, dated June 30th. “Authorizing a new class of terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands. For example, it requires connectivity while on the move, whether driving an R.V. across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight.”

Starlink is SpaceX’s ambitious initiative to launch a constellation of thousands of satellites into low- to medium-Earth orbit to provide low-latency broadband coverage to the Earth below. The company has more than 2,400 satellites in orbit so far, and after coming out of beta testing near the end of last year, the company recently boasted that it had 400,000 users. Customers who want to order Starlink must purchase the kit with a user terminal for $599 and then pay a monthly fee of $110.

However, SpaceX has clarified that it wants to expand Starlink beyond just residential customer use. The company has been negotiating with various airlines about using Starlink’s internet service. It has deals with Hawaiian Airlines and private jet service JSX to start providing internet connectivity on their aircraft over the next couple of years. Starlink also rolled out a unique service tier for R.V.s, allowing users to connect with Starlink satellites from multiple locations like campsites or vacation cabins, with no assigned “home” address for an extra fee. Unfortunately, though, at the time of the announcement, subscribers could not use the dishes while their R.V.s or vans were moving.

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation employed by SpaceX, delivering satellite Internet access to 36 countries. It aims for global coverage. SpaceX began launching Starlink satellites in 2019. As of May 2022, Starlink has over 2,400 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), transmitting with set ground transceivers. Starlink delivers internet access to over 400,000 users as of May 2022.

The SpaceX satellite development installation in Redmond, Washington, houses the Starlink research, expansion, manufacturing, and orbit control teams. The price of the decade-long project to design, create and deploy SpaceX estimated the constellation in May 2018 to be negligibly US$10 billion. However, in February 2017, documents indicated that SpaceX foresees more than $30 Bn in revenue by 2025 from its satellite constellation when revenues from its takeoff business were expected to reach $5 billion in the same year.

On October 15th, 2019, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission submitted filings to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on SpaceX’s behalf to arrange a spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites to increase the 12,000 Starlink satellites already authorized by the FCC.

Astronomers have growing concerns about the constellations’ effect on ground-based astronomy and how the satellites will count to an already congested orbital environment. SpaceX has endeavored to mitigate astronomy concerns by executing several upgrades to Starlink satellites to lower their brightness during operation. The satellites are provided with krypton-fueled Hall thrusters, letting them de-orbit at the end of their lives. Additionally, the satellites are organized to autonomously avoid collisions based on uplinked tracking data.

Constellations of lower Earth orbit satellites were first conceptualized in the mid-1980s as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative. These technologies guided numerous commercial megaconstellations using around 100 satellites in the 1990s, like Teledesic, Iridium, Celestron, and Globalstar. However, all entities penetrated bankruptcy after the dot-com bubble burst due partly to high launch costs.

In June 2004, the newly assembled company SpaceX received a stake in Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) as an element of a “shared strategic vision.” SSTL was at that time working to extend the Internet into space. However, SpaceX’s stake was sold back to EADS Astrium in 2008 after the company concentrated on navigation and Earth observation.

In early 2014, Elon Musk and Greg Wyler were reportedly working together, planning a constellation of around 700 satellites called WorldVu, which would be over ten times the size of the then largest Iridium satellite constellation. However, these dialogues broke down by June 2014, and Elon’s firm SpaceX stealthily filed an ITU application thru the Norway telecom regulator under the name STEAM. SpaceX approved the connection in the 2016 application to license Starlink with the FCC.