Communications-Satellite Revolution Gets off the Ground at SpaceX, Boeing in South Bay

By Mazza, Sandy | Pasadena Star-News, May 14, 2017 | Go to article overview

Communications-Satellite Revolution Gets off the Ground at SpaceX, Boeing in South Bay


Mazza, Sandy, Pasadena Star-News


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 SpaceX 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. …

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