SpaceX Releases Details About Its Satellite Based Global Internet System

Patricia Cooper, vice president of satellite government affairs for SpaceX appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee on May 3 to update the committee on the company’s plans for a satellite based global internet system. Cooper said the company plans to put the first fully functioning satellites into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in 2019. A full roll out of all 4,425 satellites in the proposed global internet system would take until 2024 to complete. The first prototype satellite will go into orbit before the end of this year with other prototypes to follow in 2018.

SpaceX satellite internet system

Satellite based global internet systems today suffer from several impediments including high latency, slow speeds, and limited data transmission rates. SpaceX engineers claim their satellites will solve all of those issues to create a high speed, high bandwidth internet with very low latency.

The 4,425 satellites will “operate in 83 orbital planes” and will “require associated ground control facilities, gateway Earth stations, and end-user Earth stations,” Cooper told the Senate panel. The existing HughesNet satellite based global internet system operates at an altitude of about 35,400 kilometers. The distance a signal must travel from the ground to a satellite and back to the ground is the reason that system has high latency. The satellites in the SpaceX system will operate at much lower altitudes of between 1,110 kilometers and 1,325 kilometers.

SpaceX has also wants to employ an additional 7,500 satellites in even lower orbits to boost capacity and lower latency further in heavily populated areas. Cooper offered the senators no suggested timeline for that part of the project. The main purpose of her appearance before the committee was to encourage the senators to include satellite technology in any future broadband infrastructure legislation and funding.

The SpaceX system will essentially operate as a “mesh network” she told the committee and “allocate broadband resources in real time, placing capacity where it is most needed and directing energy away from areas where it might cause interference to other systems, either in space or on the ground.” Satellites will beam directly to gateway stations and terminals at customers’ homes, a strategy that will reduce the amount of infrastructure needed on the ground, particularly in rural and remote areas, Cooper said.

“In other words, the common challenges associated with siting, digging trenches, laying fiber, and dealing with property rights are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network,” she said. SpaceX and Tesla are essentially the same entity. What one knows the other knows. Cooper suggested the technology that allows Tesla to update the software in its cars wirelessly will permit SpaceX to do the same with its internet satellites, keeping them up to date technologically than is normal for satellites.

Cooper also provided some technical details for the system. Speeds of up to one gigabit per second are expected. Current satellite ISPs have latencies of 600 milliseconds or more, according to the FCC. SpaceX claims its system will have latencies between 25 and 35 milliseconds. That would be better performance than DSL and equivalent to most major cable and fiber optic systems today. The FCC says the Altice Optimum and Verizon FiOS systems have latencies of just over 10 milliseconds.

Cooper concluded her remarks by saying customer terminals for the SpaceX satellite based global internet system will be the size of a laptop and system speeds should approach 1 gigabit per second. She told the Senate panel that her company “intends to market different packages of data at different price points, accommodating a variety of consumer demands.”

Some observers think such a system, if it ever gets up and running, could provide far more income to SpaceX than the space launch business does. That may be something to keep in mind if the rumors that the company intends its first IPO sometime in the near future. Is there a market for such a satellite based internet system? Consider this comment to the Ars Technica story from CraigJ: “So, how many of these satellites need to be in orbit before I can tell my cable ISP to get stuffed?” Yeah, there’s a market for this.

Source: Ars Technica


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.