Elon Musk’s SpaceX moved closer to another orbital frontier as regulators advanced its application to launch a low-orbit constellation of satellites and join a jostling field of operators trying to cash in on broadband service from space. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday recommended the agency approve Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s application to provide broadband services using satellite technologies in the U.S. and on a global basis. The proposal now goes to Pai’s four fellow commissioners for consideration at the agency which earlier approved three international operators for satellite-broadband operations: OneWeb, Space Norway AS and Telesat Canada.
“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies,” Pai said in an emailed statement. “Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.” The FCC’s move comes as U.S. politicians call for improved internet service in rural areas. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure proposal lists broadband, or high-speed internet service, as eligible for funding alongside traditional projects such as roads and bridges.
Some Democratic lawmakers have criticized the lack of dedicated broadband funding. John Taylor, a SpaceX spokesman, didn’t immediately comment or give further details on the company’s plans, but the FCC last year said SpaceX had requested authority to deploy and operate a constellation of 4,425 satellites operating roughly 700 to 800 miles above the Earth (or 1,110-to-1325 kilometers). Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.
The Hawthorne, California-based company currently flies the Falcon 9 rocket and last week launched the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket in 45 years. SpaceX flew two of its spent boosters back to the Florida coast for a simultaneous recovery on land. SpaceX’s customers include commercial satellite operators, the U.S. space agency NASA and the U.S. military.
Entering the satellite broadband market would add to Musk’s already wide array of business pursuits. The billionaire sells electric cars, solar products and batteries through Tesla Inc. and has been hawking hats and flamethrowers to fund Boring Co., which plans to build underground tunnels for cities including Los Angeles. He also co-founded Neuralink, which is developing technology to connect human brains with computers, and OpenAI, a nonprofit advocating for the responsible development of artificial intelligence.
The broadband project is to get an early test component on Saturday, when SpaceX is slated to launch a pair of demonstration satellites, known as Microsat-2a and -2b, to test a broadband antenna to be included in the proposed constellation, according to a SpaceX document filed with the FCC. The rocket to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California also will carry Spain’s PAZ satellite. Pai, the Republican FCC chief, said SpaceX’s program could help “unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed internet to rural Americans.”
The approval would be the first given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies, Pai said. Satellites will play a critical role in Musk’s efforts to reach his ultimate role of establishing a human settlement on Mars. Building a commercial satellite business will provide SpaceX with revenue and communications know-how that will eventually serve his Martian aspirations.
“We’re going to try to do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets,” said Musk during an interview with Bloomberg Television in January 2015. In order for large broadband constellations to deliver services in the U.S., the FCC must approve their operations to ensure the satellites don’t interfere with other uses, and will operate in a way that lowers the risk of collisions. The FCC last year gave OneWeb access to the U.S. market using a proposed fleet of 720 satellites, and granted Telesat access to the market via 117 satellites already authorized by Canada.
Space Norway won approval for two satellites.
Telesat last year said its service would suffer interference from SpaceX’s operations as proposed, and asked the FCC to deny permission.
U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will propose vacating Obama-era net neutrality rules, according to a person briefed on the development that will hand a victory to broadband providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. that oppose the regulations. Pai’s proposal is to be presented to fellow FCC commissioners Tuesday ahead of a vote set for Dec.
14 at the agency, where the chairman — an appointee of President Donald Trump — leads a Republican majority. Pai will seek to vacate the rules adopted in 2015, retaining only a portion that requires broadband providers to explain details of the service they are offering, said the person briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified because the proposal isn’t yet public. Rules to be set aside include a ban on blocking or slowing web traffic, and a prohibition on offering “fast lanes” that give quicker service to content providers willing to pay extra.
Broadband providers have argued that competition will ensure they don’t unfairly squelch traffic. Tina Pelkey, an FCC spokeswoman, declined to comment. Pai’s proposal is the latest step in a years-long tug-of-war over regulations dictating how companies such as AT&T and Comcast allow access to internet content — from Facebook Inc.’s social media site to Netflix Inc.’s streaming videos.
Supporters including Silicon Valley firms argue the rules are needed to keep network owners from favoring their own content and discouraging web startups. Critics say the rules discourage investment while exposing companies to a threat of heavier regulation including pricing mandates. The regulation survived a court challenge from broadband providers last year.
Previous attempts by the FCC to pass such rules ended with courts tossing them out or sending them back to be rewritten.
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In January, President Donald Trump selected Ajit Pai to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Two months later, Trump nominated Pai, 44, to another five-year term in that position. In an effort to better understand the challenges facing rural broadband internet service providers, Pai has been traveling west from Milwaukee, Wis., toward Wyoming for the past week, making stops in rural towns across America. On Friday afternoon, he made a stop at Black Hills State University for a roundtable discussion with area telecommunications stakeholders. U.S.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, was also in attendance. Following the discussion, the Journal sat down with Pai to discuss the challenges facing broadband internet service providers in rural areas, what a Pai-led FCC will look like and what his views are on the issue of net neutrality.
Many rural areas within South Dakota have slow or little broadband internet access. What plans do you have in place to help extend broadband access to rural areas as its importance increases in our digital world?
I think the key is making sure that we have regulatory framework in place that allows broadband providers to build out in some of these areas that are difficult to serve. One of the things I’ve found during our current trip from Milwaukee all the way to here in Rapid City is that it’s exceptionally difficult in some cases to build a business case for deployment (building more infrastructure). There might be some challenges with terrain or you might see sparsely populated counties where you might not get the return on investment when you lay fiber, or the building season might be short. So from a FCC perspective, I see our role as making sure that, No.
1, we tailor our rules to ensure that these companies are able to build out broadband, and No.
2, with respect to the federal subsidy programs we oversee, making sure that those dollars flow to unserved parts of the country and that they’re administered in a fiscally responsible way. I think if we get those two things right then companies in South Dakota and other rural states will be able to build broadband to benefit consumers.
Only 45 percent of American households with household incomes under $30,000 have home broadband access. Are rural broadband subsidy programs working?
We’re starting the process of improving them and so in the first full month that I became chairman, we got across the finish line in a bipartisan way a $4.5 billion plan over the next decade to make sure that 4G LTE is built out in all parts of unserved America. Similarly, we approved, again on a bipartisan basis, a $2 billion plan over the next decade to get fixed broadband to unserved parts of America. These are very difficult problems to solve, obviously, but I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction. Going forward, we want to also make some regulatory tweaks to ensure that rural consumers have more options. For instance, stand-alone broadband is something that I’m very interested in. A lot of consumers these days, especially younger people, might prefer to have just an internet connection as opposed to buying a bundle package. For a lot of these rural carriers, because of the way our universal service subsidy programs are structured, it’s very difficult if not impossible for them to offer that.
So that’s why a few years ago I proposed a very simple one page plan for allowing them to do that, and I’m hopeful that now in 2017 we can move on that kind of proposal as well.
Clarifying the problem with the universal service subsidy program:
(Rural broadband companies) would get these subsidies if they offered voice service and so they would have to pair voice along with broadband. So some of the companies said ‘Well, we can’t offer stand-alone broadband because if we do, we will lose those subsidies’ and so that’s why, going forward, we wanted to make sure that they were able to take advantage of those subsidies while providing a stand-alone broadband product.
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Can you speak a little bit about the FCC’s efforts to increase broadband service to rural areas as it relates to closing the digital divide between rural and urban areas?
This to me is the No.
1 issue that we need to be focused on. In my very first speech in my first full day in office, I spoke to the FCC staff, and I told them that I think the FCC and government generally needs to be focused on closing the digital divide. I think increasingly as the internet becomes more important in all aspects of daily life, it seems to follow that if you don’t have internet access then you won’t be able to improve your life, get high-quality education and health care and building a new business and the like. Similarly, America will lose out because we won’t be able to leverage some of the human capital that I think does exist in rural America. I’m convinced that somewhere out there in small towns is somebody who, if given the chance, with a broadband connection, could teach himself or herself ways to program in a very innovative fashion. So it is incredibly important for us to essentially embrace the spirit of a field of dreams, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ If you build these broadband connections to rural America, I’m convinced that thousands, if not millions, of younger rural Americans could take advantage of it, come to the table and compete in events like the International Collegiate Programming Contest (held in Rapid City on May 24) on par with anybody around the world.
There’s been a pretty consistent characterization of you as an enemy of net neutrality. What’s your reaction to this label? Is it wrong?
I would hope that people of goodwill would focus on the facts, and the facts are that everyone supports a free and open internet. That’s the internet we’ve had from the commercialization of the online world in the 1990s. It’s the internet we had in 2015 prior to these regulations being adopted, and it’s the internet we will have going forward, regardless of what the regulatory framework is. I think the only question here is what rules can we adopt that preserve those core values of an open internet and maximize the incentive for companies, big and small, rural and urban, to invest in infrastructure. People are looking at the internet today and wondering ‘Well how is it going to ramp up to address some of the high bandwidth applications of the future: streaming video and gaming and high-definition applications for things like health care, remote surgery and the like?’ All of those exciting applications require a lot of bandwidth. So the networks of today are going to have to evolve and provide even more bandwidth in the future. This requires massive amounts of investment and so we need to make sure our rules preserve the incentive that companies will have to build those networks.
This risk capital doesn’t have to be spent on broadband, and it doesn’t have to be spent in the United States, and I think if we want to make the American internet economy the envy of the world going forward, we need to make sure that our rules reflect that. That’s part of the conversation we’re involved in now. No one is talking about destroying the open internet. No one is talking about leaving consumers to the mercy of any competitive monopolist. All we’re talking about is how to best preserve that core value of the open internet and preserve the incentive to invest in the networks going forward.
Do you see the FCC as having a role in trying to prevent misinformation, propaganda or subversive information on the internet?
It has long been a bedrock principle at the FCC that we don’t regulate content through whatever medium it goes over, with some very limited exceptions. For instance, we don’t tell the broadcast companies what kinds of news they should cover or shouldn’t cover. We don’t tell wireless companies what types of information they should be allowed to distribute over their networks or not. This is one of the core principles. It is of course inspired by the basic First Amendment freedoms that we all cherish.
I understand this is an issue that’s of great interest to a lot of Americans, and it’s a political debate in Congress, but from a legal perspective at least, I don’t see any clear cut authority for the FCC to get involved.