SpaceX gets OK to launch 4,425 satellites using Ka, Ku bands

The FCC approved an application by SpaceX to provide broadband services using satellite technology in the United States and around the world, marking the first time the U.S. has OK’d a satellite constellation using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.

SpaceX was granted conditional authority to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands to provide global internet service. The company, which plans to launch 4,425 satellites, must comply with certain conditions, including protecting other operations in the requested frequency bands. 

The approval, which was the result of a 5-0 vote, is not a big surprise given that Chairman Ajit Pai had recommended that the commission approve it. Pai has been a champion of getting broadband to Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers don’t reach.

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Over the past year, the FCC has approved requests by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat to provide broadband services using satellite technology. Other requests are still being processed.

Some rivals had raised concerns about SpaceX’s plan, including OneWeb, which wanted to see a buffer zone of about 125 kilometers between the SpaceX constellation and other non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) systems. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler has stressed that space debris is a big problem and his company is making it a priority.

But the FCC said OneWeb’s request in this proceeding could be interpreted to request a buffer zone that spans altitudes between 1,015 and 1,385 kilometers, and while it is concerned about the risk of collisions between space stations, it thinks those concerns are best addressed through inter-operator coordination.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a separate statement saying the U.S. needs to better prepare for the proliferation of satellites at higher altitudes, including how it tackles the growing challenge posed by orbital debris and coordinating more closely with other federal actors to figure out what national policies are for this new kind of space activity.

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The National Space Council is considering policy changes to help promote the growth of the commercial space industry, and their efforts encompass everything from streamlining licenses to reforming export controls to protecting airwaves facilitating space activities. Its membership spans the civil, military, and commercial sectors, but so far, the FCC does not have a seat at the table and that needs to be fixed, according to Rosenworcel.

At its April 17 open meeting, the FCC will consider a proposal that would tweak the regulatory review process to reflect the popularity of smaller satellite systems. Under Pai’s proposal, if satellites or systems have certain characteristics, such as short orbital lifetimes, they could choose to file under a new, alternative small-satellite process.