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SpaceX is asking FCC to raise authorized Starlink terminals to five million

Astronautic Launches Service Provider and Equipment Manufacturer Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is going full steam ahead with its plans to launch satellite-based broadband internet service called Starlink. SpaceX’s subsidiary Space Exploration Holdings LLC was approved yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test Starlink ground stations in six U.S. states, with the company expecting the network to become commercial by the end of this.

At the same time, the FCC’s approval came through, SpaceX also increased the number of Earth stations (or user terminals) that customers plan to use to connect to Starlink. The company’s earlier filing with the FCC, which was approved in March this year, asked the agency to approve the rollout of a million such terminals. Now, in an amendment to yesterday’s original filing, SpaceX has asked the Commission to increase this number to five million.

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The filing is designed to only increase the number of user terminals that SpaceX wants the FCC to authorize, and according to the details, the company has not made any other changes to their technical specifications. Early versions of Starlink require both user terminals and ground ground stations built by SpaceX in the United States to route consumer internet traffic to website data centers.

This operational framework stems from the fact that the current capabilities of the Starlink satellites do not allow them to transmit data to each other, and in the future, SpaceX aims to enable them by communicating through lasers.

In its first filing for authorization for the one million terminals, SpaceX argued for the FCC that licensing will be in the public interest as it will allow the company to bring internet connectivity to unsecured areas of rural America.

The main reason that SpaceX has requested the FCC to increase the number of authorized terminals is based on what the company perceives is the demand for Starlink. According to the filing, SpaceX has revealed that approximately 700,000 users in the United States have signed up for the Internet service, implicitly concluding that this number of users exceeds the terminals currently authorized by the Commission.

Bottom of the SpaceX Starlink WiFi router. The image is from the label location diagram for the FCC application. The FCC approved the router on June 14, 2020. (Image source: FCC)

These user terminals are manufactured by SpaceX, are about half a meter in size, have a signal strength of 33.2 dBi at 11.83 GHz and 34.6 dBi at 14.25 GHz, a circular polarization to the right and effective isotropic radiated power (EIRP – maximum power output in a single direction) of 38.2 decibels-Watt. Circular polarization, unlike linear polarization, emits electromagnetic waves in two directions, creating a pattern similar to a “corkscrew” motion. This gives them a shorter rad range, but prevents wave changes as it travels to communicate with a satellite.

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At the time of the unaltered filing in 2019, a coalition of geostationary satellite orbit (GSO) satellite orbits had filed a request with the FCC to oblige SpaceX to submit system data to ensure they fall within the equivalent flux of flux density (EPFD) that has been validated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Criteria. The petitioners had argued that if SpaceX’s systems conflicted with these criteria, the company would have effectively harmed its own interests and if the data had not been validated by the ITU, it would not have guaranteed interference protection against SpaceX’s broadcasts.

SpaceX objected to the coalition’s claim that the existing rules of the FCC should be changed by stating that the petition misrepresented existing rules surrounding the case. After filing for one million user terminals with the FCC in February 2019, the FCC took more than a year to grant SpaceX this privilege. The company has already obtained Commission approval for its Starlink router that allows users to access the network, and it is uncertain if and when the FCC will expand user station licenses from one million to five million.

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