SpaceX Outlines Satellite Internet Plan

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Credit: NASA Television)

Statement of
Patricia Cooper
Vice President, Satellite Government Affairs
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX)
Before the
Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology
United States Senate
October 25, 2017

Selected Excerpts

SpaceX’s consumer focus sets it apart from most other proposed NGSO system. SpaceX has designed its system with the primary purpose of providing broadband service directly to end-users, particularly individual households and small businesses. Meeting this distinct direct-to-end-user goal demands far more on-orbit capacity, which in turn drives the larger number of satellites in the design and the focus on spectrum re-use efficiency.

Initially, the SpaceX system will consist of 4,425 satellites operating in 83 orbital planes (at altitudes ranging from 1,110 km to 1,325 km). This system will also require associated ground control facilities, gateway earth stations, and end user earth stations.

Using Ka- and Ku-Band spectrum, the initial system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and professional users worldwide. SpaceX has separately filed for authority to operate in the V-Band, where we have proposed an additional constellation of 7,500 satellites even closer to Earth, our Very Low Earth Orbit, or “VLEO,” system. In the future, these satellites will provide additional broadband capacity to the SpaceX system and further reduce latency where populations are heavily concentrated.

To implement the system, SpaceX will utilize powerful computing and software capabilities, which will enable SpaceX to 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. Because the satellites will beam directly to gateways or user terminals, the infrastructure needed on the ground—particularly in rural or remote areas—is substantially reduced, essentially addressing the “last mile” challenge and helping to close the digital divide. 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.

SpaceX intends to continually iterate and improve the technology in the system, something that our satellite manufacturing cost profile and in-house launch capability uniquely enables. The ability to modify service as necessary, as well as refresh the technology of the satellite system through iterative spacecraft design changes and phased, continuous deployment, is critical to meet rapidly changing customer demands and responsibly utilize spectrum. This approach will ensure that the system remains adaptable to existing and future customer demands.

For the end consumer, SpaceX user terminals—essentially, a small flat panel, roughly the size of a laptop—will use similar phased array technologies to allow for highly directive, steered antenna beams that track the system’s low-Earth orbit satellites. 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. 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 NGSO constellations.

Overall, SpaceX has designed our system to achieve the following key objectives:

(1) Capacity. By combining the umbrella coverage of the LEO Constellation with the more intensive coverage from the VLEO Constellation, the SpaceX System will be able to provide high volume broadband capacity over a wide area. SpaceX will periodically improve the satellites over the course of the multi-year deployment of the system, which may further increase capacity.

(2) Adaptability. The system leverages phased array technology to steer dynamically a large pool of beams to focus capacity where it is needed. As noted, optical inter-satellite links will permit flexible routing of traffic on-orbit. Further, the constellation ensures that a variety of frequencies can be reused effectively across different satellites to enhance the flexibility, capacity and robustness of the overall system.

(3) Broadband Services. The system will be able to provide broadband service at fiber-like speeds, the system’s use of low-Earth orbits will allow it to target latencies comparable to terrestrial alternatives. SpaceX intends to market different packages of data at different price points, accommodating a variety of consumer demands.

(4) Efficiency. SpaceX is designing the system from the ground up with cost-effectiveness and reliability in mind, from the design and manufacturing of the space and ground-based elements, to the launch and deployment of the system using SpaceX launch services, development of the user terminals, and end-user subscription rates.

SpaceX soon will begin the process of testing the satellites themselves, with the first two prototypes launching within the next several months. Following the successful demonstration of our space and ground technology, SpaceX intends to begin the operational satellite launch campaign in 2019. The remaining satellites in the constellation will be launched in phases through 2024, when the system will reach full capacity with the Ka- and Ku-Band satellites.

The constellation will be operational well in advance of full deployment, and we expect to begin offering services commercially as early as deployment of 800 satellites. SpaceX is highly experienced with cutting-edge debris mitigation practices and has deep ties with the domestic and international institutions tasked with ensuring the continued safety of space operations.

This year, SpaceX proved out this concept with the successful launch and landing of three flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters, placing high-value telecommunications satellites into orbit for commercial satellite operators. Each Falcon 9 first stage will soon be capable of at least 10 flights with no refurbishment and many more flights after minimal refurbishment, resulting in significant cost reductions.

Dramatically lower launch costs and the demonstrated capability to launch nearly every two weeks (or less) allows SpaceX affordably to deploy larger numbers of satellites for its own NGSO constellation at a pace not previously possible. Moreover, affordable access to space also allows SpaceX to refresh the constellation technology over time, driving down the cost of producing each satellite and making it easier to add capability to meet consumer demand and dynamically react to an evolving market.