SpaceX launching its first test satellites to bring Internet to billions around the world

Key Points
  • SpaceX will launch its first two test satellites next week, a postponement from an initial liftoff that was scheduled on Sunday.
  • Elon Musk's space company aims to begin building its own constellation of 4,425 broadband satellites in 2019, with another 7,518 satellites to come after.
  • The constellation may be able to bring 5G-like service to billions around the world.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 19, 2017.
Joe Skipper | Reuters

SpaceX is on a collision course with the world's biggest telecom and satellite manufacturing companies, as it steps up development of its "Starlink" network of satellites.

The company will soon test its first satellites, Microsat 2a and 2b, which are headed for orbit aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, according to documents filed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These satellites will take the next step into space, which is critical for the network's progress.

On Saturday, SpaceX scrapped plans to launch on Sunday, in the interest of performing "final checks', and rescheduled for February 21st. However, the company's big ambitions remain on track.

Starlink – a name SpaceX filed to trademark last year – is an ambition unmatched by any current satellite network. The largest existing constellation is built by Iridium, with the company halfway through launching its new 75 Iridium Next satellites to space, set to finish deployment in the next year.

The stakes are high, with a space race for a new era viewed as a linchpin to help make life better here on earth. According to the FCC there are about 14 million rural Americans, as well as 1.2 million Americans on tribal lands, who do not have access to even the slowest mobile broadband services.

If realized, SpaceX's satellite constellation would transform a traditionally high-cost, low-reliability service. The space industry is estimated to expand rapidly over the next three decades, with the satellite internet sector anticipated to grow at an exponential rate.

SpaceX will begin launching an initial constellation of 4,425 Ka/Ku band [a term that indicates range on the electromagnetic spectrum] low Earth orbit satellites in 2019, with the system becoming operational once at least 800 satellites are deployed, the FCC documents show. The two test satellites will orbit about 700 miles above the Earth, in the same range as the eventual constellation.

Starlink will offer broadband speeds comparable to fiber optic networks, according to FCC documents, by essentially creating a blanket connection across the electromagnetic spectrum. The satellites would offer new direct to consumer wireless connections, rather the present system's redistribution of signals.

The project is currently under consideration by the FCC. On Thursday, it received backing from FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who said that Starlink would be "on such innovation … to provide high-speed internet to rural Americans." The license would give SpaceX six years to deploy all the satellites, although the FCC is also looking at a petition from SpaceX to waive the time constraint.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has touted Starlink's reach, saying it could bring 5G-like service to billions around the world while also handling up to 10 percent of the internet traffic in more congested regions "where people are stuck with Time Warner or Comcast."

Starlink would be a "real enabler for people in poorer regions of the world," Musk has said.

The Microsat 2a and 2b satellites will validate the design and functionality of the platform over an anticipated 20 months of testing. Weighing just under 900 pounds each, the SpaceX satellites are also much smaller than some of the multi-ton behemoths currently in service. SpaceX will also test six fixed-position ground stations and three mobile ground stations, located across the U.S.

Starlink against the world

SpaceX is valued around $21.5 billion and has received at least $1 billion in investment from Google-parent Alphabet, as well as Fidelity. The company says it has over 100 missions on its upcoming launch manifest that are worth more than $12 billion in contracts.

Despite the multibillion dollar valuation, SpaceX would be going up against the ground-based systems of telecom giants Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T, as well as competing with other expansive constellations planned from the likes of Boeing, OneWeb and Telesat.

Current broadband satellites, such as those from DirecTV and Dish Network, offer latency speeds around 600 milliseconds at best – many times slower than the 25 to 30 millisecond speeds SpaceX is expected to offer, according to FCC documents.

Competitor OneWeb, backed by Japan's SoftBank, has raised over $1 billion to build a constellation of 720 Ku band satellites, also aiming to deploy in 2019 and at an altitude of about 750 miles in low Earth orbit. OneWeb's request was approved by the FCC last year.

Telesat, another satellite operator with FCC, is working to build a constellation of 120 Ka band satellites by 2021. Telesat's constellation is primarily targeted for use by U.S. military, but it did launch a satellite in January to test broadband services.

SpaceX is also planning an additional constellation of 7,518 V band satellites, situated in a "very low" Earth orbit at just over 200 miles. The V band spectrum has yet to be used heavily by commercial services but several companies are looking to expand high-speed direct-to-consumer services using the system.

Boeing has submitted an application to the FCC for a constellation of 1,396 or more low Earth orbit satellites that would use V band spectrum. Likewise, OneWeb and Telesat also filed plans with the FCC to use V band, although with less specific plans thus far.

Making Starlink a global service will likely face international regulatory hurdles. Previously, Musk has conceded that SpaceX would need permission from countries to offer the network's services there, which may be a difficult and slow process.

Those who have gone before – and failed

Elsewhere, the road is littered with companies that tried, and failed, to pull off a coup in space. Back in 2015, Facebook decided against spending up to $1 billion on a satellite that would provide Internet to under-served regions in Africa and other continents. Instead, Facebook opted to lease broadband onboard Spacecom's AMOS-6 satellite, which was destroyed when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during fueling before launch in 2016.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates helped fund Teledesic, in an effort to build low Earth satellites to provide Internet service. Yet Teledesic closed in 2002, after racking up more than $9 billion costs.

"But the cost structure of the business is so much better than when Bill Gates tried it," Paul Gallant, analyst at Guggenheim Partners, told The Washington Post. "I think Musk's track record of disruptive innovation would make this a really attractive business for the ... FCC to support."

SpaceX has heavily decreased the cost of access to space with its Falcon lines of rockets, with launch prices in the tens of millions – compared to the hundreds of millions or billions offered by competitors. With the satellite-internet business Musk may well have found a staple business for SpaceX, one which could make his dreams of colonizing Mars closer to reality.

WATCH: SpaceX sending internet satellites into space in 2019

SpaceX sending internet satellites into space in 2019
SpaceX sending internet satellites into space in 2019