Communications-satellite revolution gets off the ground at SpaceX, Boeing in South Bay
Inside SpaceX’s secretive white-walled manufacturing and engineering headquarters in Hawthorne, workers are designing the technological foundation of an intelligent global communications system. The mission of truly worldwide communications coverage is unprecedented. If successful, the company will craft a constellation of smart-satellites focusing digital eyes on each point of the Earth’s surface within a decade.
The pioneering private rocket builder first proposed its plan to the federal government five months ago but had been brainstorming for years. Its goal became much more real this month when SpaceX1 Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper mapped out a timetable for the plan at a congressional hearing.
“These systems can help alleviate the inherent challenges of providing high-speed internet to rural and ‘hard to reach’ areas,” Cooper said. “With a vertically integrated approach to this initiative — from design, development, production, launch and operations — SpaceX is addressing many of the challenges that have stymied past attempts to achieve affordable, high-speed broadband from space.”
This is the company’s first foray into making cutting-edge communication satellites, and it’s vying for coveted airspace with a slew of younger startups with competing proposals for global 5G coverage. The Boeing Co. in El Segundo, SpaceX’s primary competition in snagging lucrative government rocket-launch contracts, is also developing innovative new satellite system technology. But, in its relatively short 15-year life, SpaceX has grown accustomed to “firsts.” It was the first commercial rocket manufacturer to deliver rockets into orbit, dock at the International Space Station, and return rocket boosters to Earth for reuse.
It has plans to begin the first commercial-crewed orbital missions next year. So it’s not surprising the company wants to be among the leaders in bringing the internet to every corner of the Earth. But SpaceX’s bid would be the largest U.S.-based system of its kind. Company officials are gearing up to test the prototypes they have been developing since 2013.
Deploying 11,925 satellites
Competition for real estate in the space outside Earth’s atmosphere is heated. And SpaceX, with its famously innovative, young workforce, is pursuing emerging multibillion-dollar markets against the some of the world’s top satellite engineers.
The company filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission late last year to put 4,425 interactive satellites in low-Earth orbit beginning in 2019. In March, it sought another 7,500 satellites in a different region of space. First, its two experimental MicroSat satellites will be placed into low-Earth orbit by early 2018, Cooper said. They will be guided by a laptop-sized gateway device at the company’s Hawthorne headquarters.
The equipment is designed to deliver lightning-fast, reliable, cheap mobile internet service to the most remote corners of the world, opening access to roughly 3 billion people now offline worldwide. The FCC is now reviewing 21 applications to operate global broadband satellite constellations from SpaceX, Boeing, LeoSat Enterprises in Florida, O3b Networks in Britain’s Channel Islands, Spire Global in San Francisco, ViaSat Inc. in Carlsbad, Audacy in Stanford, and OneWeb and Karousel LLC in Virginia, among others. In 2010, the agency set out a national plan for companies planning to develop the next wave of broadband communications infrastructure.
It emphasized the importance of delivering affordable data service to disconnected and underconnected communities.
“Approximately 100 million Americans do not have broadband at home,” the agency wrote, in the plan. “And nearly a decade after 9/11, our first responders still lack a nationwide public safety mobile broadband communications network.”
Facebook has already begun using existing data networks to get internet to remote regions with its Free Basics program.
“We know that there is no silver bullet for connecting the world; no single technology will get the job done,” said Facebook spokeswoman Johanna Goodrich. “Rather than look for a one-size-fits-all solution, we are investing in a building-block strategy that includes everything from satellites to Aquila the company’s solar-powered plane that will beam the internet to remote parts of the world to technologies like Terragraph a 60 GHz, multinode wireless system focused on bringing high-speed internet connectivity to dense urban areas and millimeter-wave radio.”
But satellite coverage would be the cheapest, most convenient way to get worldwide internet access.
FCC officials plan to open up part of the electromagnetic spectrum previously off-limits to mobile communications. The increased access to bandwidth, made possible by new technologies, will allow for networks of self-driving cars, coordinated delivery drones, automated homes and offices and a wide range of machine-to-machine communications. Engineers are working to firm up advanced technologies to mediate weaknesses in modern optical line-of-sight beams, rather than the traditional radio frequency. Optical transmissions are slimmer and can carry much more data, but they’re more easily interrupted.
“FCC rules require these constellations to coordinate with each other to avoid interference,” according to FCC spokesman Neil Derek Grace. “If a coordination agreement is not reached, the overlapping spectrum will be equally divided among the constellations involved in the situation of potential interference.”
SpaceX has invested heavily in optical transmissions for its network. Cooper said its engineering designs use the beams extremely efficiently.
“In space, the satellites will communicate with each other using optical inter-satellite links, in effect creating a ‘mesh network’ flying overhead that will enable seamless network management and continuity of service,” SpaceX’s Cooper told the U.S. Senate’s commission on commerce, science and technology.
“The inter-satellite links will further help SpaceX comply with national and international rules associated with spectrum sharing, which distinguishes our system from some of the other proposed non-geostationary satellite orbit constellations.”
Non-geostationary satellite systems are expected to divide up the radio spectrum around the Earth in a carefully orchestrated engineering symphony. Machines would automatically move out of the way when orbits get too close to one another.
“SpaceX satellites are independently steerable over the full field of view of the Earth,” according to the company’s FCC filing. “SpaceX intends to begin providing commercial broadband service in the U.S. and internationally after launching 800 satellites of the Initial Deployment.”
Cooper asked the Senate committee to consider stricter rules to ensure outer space doesn’t get too cluttered with less frugal communication broadcasts.
“Congress should encourage regulatory agencies to adopt rules that create incentives that encourage the use of spectrally efficient technologies,” said Cooper. “Spectrum is a valuable and increasingly scarce resource, which must be shared by multiple satellite and terrestrial systems.”
Boeing touts history
Undeterred by legions of competing young tech businesses, Boeing put forward the second-largest satellite constellation proposal now under FCC review. The company has a century of engineering innovation under its belt and has been building complex satellite systems for 50 years.
“We’re now the only company in the world that has all-electric propulsion satellites on orbit serving commercial customers, and we still see significant demand for commercial communications bandwidth,” said company CEO Dennis Muilenburg, during a company earnings call in April.
Its next-generation space-data-delivery machines would be managed at a Global Network Operations Center, according to the company’s FCC application. The newest proprietary designs will go into its system that, like SpaceX’s proposal, would use optical beams in lower orbits. With all the competition, Boeing officials are making it clear they are worried about less-efficient satellite systems clogging up airwaves.
“Boeing’s satellite designs are highly mature and based on advanced technologies and capabilities that have been proven in-orbit to meet the most complex communications requirements, including for government and commercial customers,” said Linda Taira, Boeing’s senior manager of network and space systems communications.
The company “believes the FCC must ensure that any 5G designations provide protection for existing satellite services and future growth of the satellite industry.”