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​SpaceX's Starlink takes a big step forward in delivering internet from the sky

The Federal Communications Commission has approved Elon Musk's SpaceX application to deliver broadband services from its Starlink Low Earth Orbit satellites.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Elon Musk's rocket-launching service, SpaceX, is planning to launch hundreds of satellites -- Starlink -- to deliver internet around the globe from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved its request to create a satellite network to deliver "high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service" to consumers in the US and across the world.

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The first real step to this goal came when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the first two test Starlink satellites, dubbed Tintin A and B by Musk, from California's Vandenberg Air Force base on Feb. 22, 2018.

The Starlink constellation of satellites will form a mesh network in space using V band, which covers 40GHz to 75GHz, to connect with each other. They'll then use use Ka/Ku radio bands to deliver internet to Earth-bound receivers. If all goes well, they'll deliver 1Gbps to its customers.

Musk plan's for the system is to go operational once 800 satellites have been deployed. Eventually, there will be 4,425 satellites for the provision of fixed-satellite service (FSS) around the world. This is far more communication satellites than have ever been launched before for a single system. SpaceX hopes to see Starlink operational by the mid-2020s.

SpaceX is far from the only one in the LEO satellite internet business. OneWeb, which already had FCC approval, will launch its network up with Amazon's Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rockets starting in 2020. Its mesh network will top out with 720 satellites using the Ku band.

The Canadian satellite company Telesat is building a constellation of 120 Ka-band satellites. Its focus for its constellation is on commercial and military customers, rather than public broadband.

Boeing, OneWeb, O3b Networks, and Theia Holdings also have plans to field constellations of LEO V-band satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits to provide broadband services. Their plans aren't as advanced as their competitors.

Of course, HughesNet has been delivering internet from space for decades. But, its latest offering, HughesNet Gen5, tops out at only 25Mbps. Its data plans come 10GB, 20GB, 30GB, and 50GB data caps, plus an additional 50GB of data, which is only available from 2am to 8am.

HughesNet satellites are in geosynchronous, or high-earth orbit. This gives its services an inherent problem: High latency. Latency is the time between when you start an activity over the internet and when you get a response back. Earth-bound broadband gives you a latency of about 8 milliseconds (ms) to 20ms. Satellite internet, to date, sticks you with a latency of over 600ms. That cripples applications such as video-conferencing or gaming, which need low latency. SpaceX's VP of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, promises that StarLink will have latencies as low as 25ms.

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There have been previous attempts to create LEO internet satellite networks. For example, Bill Gates tried in the late 90s and early 00s with Teledesic. More recently, Facebook, despite setbacks, is continuing its work with satellites to deliver internet services to Africa and other areas with few broadband options.

Will you be getting your internet from space in a few years? Stick around and see what happens. With SpaceX leading the way, it looks like fast, low-latency internet from the stars may be in your future.

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