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SpaceX Wants Permission To Test Satellite Internet 98

An anonymous reader writes: SpaceX has filed documents with the FCC asking for permission to begin testing a project to serve internet access from space. "The plan calls for launching a constellation of 4,000 small and cheap satellites that would beam high-speed Internet signals to all parts of the globe, including its most remote regions." This follows news that Facebook and Google had stepped back their efforts in that arena. SpaceX could prove to be a better fit for the project, given that they need only rely on themselves for launching satellites into orbit. "The satellites would be deployed from one of SpaceX's rockets, the Falcon 9. Once in orbit, the satellites would connect to ground stations at three West Coast facilities. The purpose of the tests is to see whether the antenna technology used on the satellites will be able to deliver high-speed Internet to the ground without hiccups."
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SpaceX Wants Permission To Test Satellite Internet

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  • Looks like you may have a new competitor soon.

    • by wiggles ( 30088 )

      No way. The latency would be ridiculous for most use cases. This is only actually marketable for a couple of situations -

      1. Orbital internet service. The ISS can surf porn.
      2. Remote internet service. The researchers at Macmurdo can surf porn.
      3. Circumventing state filters on internet content. The Chinese can surf porn.
      4. Interplanetary internet service. The Mars rover and future moon/Mars colonies will eventually be able to surf porn.

      • by JesseMcDonald ( 536341 ) on Wednesday June 10, 2015 @09:55AM (#49883011) Homepage

        The latency would be ridiculous for most use cases.

        Are you sure? A round-trip latency of 13ms to the base station(s) seems fairly reasonable to me. These are Low Earth Orbit satellites with an altitude between 99 and 1,200 miles, not geostationary ones at 22,236 miles; that's 1/18th the distance, and thus latency, of existing satellite Internet providers like WildBlue or HughesNet. At the minimum LEO altitude the latency would be another order of magnitude lower still (around 1ms). Even the high-LEO delay is significantly less than the 20-40ms time to the first router reported by traceroute for my Qwest DSL connection.

        The trade-offs of LEO include a requirement for many more satellites for the same coverage, the necessity of hand-offs as the satellites pass overhead, and lower orbital lifetimes / higher fuel consumption due to increased atmospheric drag.

      • by neminem ( 561346 )

        Right. They're not really putting any pressure on Comcast or any other terrestrial ISP, crap as they may all be. They *are*, however, hopefully going to be putting some pretty strong pressure on the one segment of the internet-providing market that currently has an even stronger monopoly than any of them: cruise ships. Even Comcast doesn't feel like it can charge you per minute of connectivity, a la early 80s AOL - and generally for early 80s AOL speeds, too! Cruise ships do.

        • by Teancum ( 67324 )

          When Comcast is looking as a wonderful alternative to me right now compared to the absolutely miserable experience I have with Century Link, I can see at least for my community that this will indeed be some realistic competition for terrestrial ISPs. All they have to beat is $100 per month for more than 800 kilobits/s of service to be economically viable for my family.

          Yes, where I live internet service is that crappy. The data gets through, but it is insanely slow and often is far less than 800 kilobits i

          • by Isca ( 550291 )
            I suspect this is part of the reasoning behind having **4000 satellites**. This seems like way too many unless you suddenly see possibilities of some ISP subleasing 1 satellite at all times directly above xyz geographic area. The local ISP transmits data up, the satellite currently overhead simply passes the data back down to all of the subscribers in xyz geographic area. WIth the right steerable antennas (electronic) the beam could be very tight on both ends and not interfere with all of the other satelli
  • Exede and Hughesnet already serve internet from satellites, so we need more? Maybe this one will be better?
    • It wouldn't take much to beat these. Both in speed and the bandwidth caps.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by pla ( 258480 )
        It wouldn't take much to beat these. Both in speed and the bandwidth caps.

        It would take a way to break the speed of light - Pretty tricky problem, that one!

        As a former Hughesnet customer, yes, the cap sucks, but overall the system has acceptable bandwidth. The real problem? The god-awful latency.

        Nothing any ISP can do will ever solve the basic limitation of physics that a satellite somewhere around 40,000km has a round-trip time over half a second (130ms per trip, times a minimum of four trips - Re
  • I don't think FCC has jurisdiction over "all parts of the globe"

  • Challenges... (Score:5, Informative)

    by rew ( 6140 ) <r.e.wolff@BitWizard.nl> on Wednesday June 10, 2015 @08:18AM (#49882371) Homepage

    Google and facebook have realized that some problems are not (economically) surmountable.

    The problems are the following: The closer you fly your satelite to the earth, the more resistance it has from the atmosphere. The density of the atmosphere reduces by a factor of 100 each 46 km of height. So at "100km", you have about 10000 times less air than at the surface. Some people call that space. At 200km the air pressure is about 100 million times less than what it is over here. That is enough to have a reasonable decay rate of weeks/months/years. "skylab" came down after a few decades, right?

    The further away you fly your satellites, the longer the travel times will be for the signals. This equates to ping-times. Hmm. 200km is 0.6 ms, quite acceptable. Both ways. 1.3ms. Still fine. Double the distance to 400km for slower decay times, and you're still about 10 times faster than a normal ADSL line. Acceptable. Not a problem. (the problem here is the same for everybody. The satellites will then play "pass the hot potato" to one that's flying above the ground station and beam your packet down to earth. Assuming your halfway around the globe, that will be about 10000 km. That's with 66ms (round trip) already more than what you get with a residential ADSL line. Still not too shabby.)

    The problem with putting satellites high is that the distance to the user becomes large. You want them as close as possible.

    The closer you put them, the more you need. -> 4000 of them. This however is not just a one-time investment: because they are low, their orbits decay and they fall back to earth on relatively short notice. If you need 4000 of them, they are not going to be large. So they are small. If you have a cubesate (10cm cubed) weighing 1kg, its orbit will decay just like a 100kg satellite of 10x100x100cm (flying the wrong side towards the front). But a bigger satellite is likely to be 100x100x100cm and weigh not 100, but 1000kg. The extra weight helps keep it in orbit, the extra size in the flying direction does not make a big difference. So the small satellites decay fast as well!

    • by jbengt ( 874751 )
      I'm assuming that there would also be the latency between the end user and the ground antennae using terrestrial copper and fiber, otherwise this would be a mostly one-way internet. I doubt the individual would have the power to upload a fast stream directly to the satellite.
      • by rew ( 6140 )

        Older satellite internet systems used technologies borrowed from "TV broadcasting". What they effectively did is broadcast everybody's downlink via the satellite and everybody-for-himself had to use a land-line for the uplink. The idea being that you like having a big downlink pipe and it might be acceptable to have "only" 56k uplink.

        All that is going overboard, as I understand things. Yes, people are going to transmit their uplink bits to the satellites: the stated goal of these projects is "internet ever

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        I'm assuming that there would also be the latency between the end user and the ground antennae using terrestrial copper and fiber, otherwise this would be a mostly one-way internet. I doubt the individual would have the power to upload a fast stream directly to the satellite.

        There are two way satellite internet systems.

        The thing is, a lot of things people do aren't latency dependent. Sure it takes a little while to start up, but once you've got it established, you can get really good bandwidth (satellite ar

    • I don't think Google has actually given up on this project. They have just realized SpaceX is more capable. That's likely the reason Google invested a large sum of money in SpaceX. [wired.com]
    • by rew ( 6140 )

      Rereading my own message: Near: "You want them as close as possible."
      I forgot to mention: "because the required power to transmit to the satellite increases with the distance."

    • Re:Challenges... (Score:4, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwater@gmail . c om> on Wednesday June 10, 2015 @10:22AM (#49883257) Homepage

      At 200km the air pressure is about 100 million times less than what it is over here. That is enough to have a reasonable decay rate of weeks/months/years. "skylab" came down after a few decades, right?

      Depending on the satellite's drag and ballistic coefficient, below around 200km you're talking hours to days, at 300km - days to weeks at the outside. Unboosted, anything between (roughly) 300 to 350km is essentially gone within a year [globalsecurity.org]. That's why Skylab was and ISS is, higher still - in the 400km range.

      Skylab's second stage (seperated after the station was in it's final orbit) re-entered after only two years, while the station itself was reboosted on several occasions by docked Apollo spacecraft. Skylab's post occupation lifetime was extended by giving it a larger than normal reboost before the final manned mission departed, and subsequently by carefully maintaining it in a low drag orientation.

      The ISS requires regular reboosts [heavens-above.com] to maintain altitude.

      • by Megane ( 129182 )
        Iridium [wikipedia.org] has been up for years at ~780km, and they've only lost 17, counting the one that smacked into a dead Russian satellite. These satellites will be higher.
      • by Guspaz ( 556486 )

        IIRC the SpaceX satellites will feature electric propulsion, but there is very little drag at 1,100km. Without using any propulsion, they wouldn't fully decay for a few dozen millennia.

    • Yes, due to latency reasons they are probably going to put your satelites in < 1000km altitude.

      But if you can do point to point communication via same satelite network without needing to go via base station, or if you have several base stations across the globe, then this will have LOWER latency than going via cables especially for long distance stuff say USA <=> Europe.

      I assume they plan to launch small satelites, maybe bigger than cubesats, but definitely smaller than 100cm^3 and 1000kg. I
      • by danlip ( 737336 )

        when it passes over a huge city with lots of clients

        Big cities will probably have no clients because there will be better ways to get internet access in a big city. This will be great for rural areas and ships in the middle of the ocean, and thus load will never be concentrated.

      • by rew ( 6140 )

        Directional is an option for the satellites. But on the ground you'd have to be tracking all the time, and you'd have a dropout the moment one satellite goes away and another comes into view.

        Oh, about the height. Suppose you're at 1000km. Then the area that can see the satellite at at least 45 degrees above the horizon is about 1000km in diameter. This covers an area of about 3 million square km. The earth is about 450 million square km. You'd need about 300 satellites to cover the earth with each spot gett

    • by bledri ( 1283728 )

      Google and facebook have realized that some problems are not (economically) surmountable.


      Wrong. Google recently invested $900 million in SpaceX specifically to develop a satellite based Internet backbone. All these articles saying Google abandoned satellite constellations are by people that don't know what they are talking about. SpaceX intends to use less expensive, shorter lived satellites. Yes their orbits will naturally decay. That is a feature, not a bug, for SpaceX. They will constantly replenish with newer, cheaper, better satellites. Google decided that it made more sense to suppo

  • Sure, try there first. But don't rely on their approval.

    The feds are so f'ed up at this point that I don't think you can trust them to be rational on the issue. If they don't respond in a timely manner with a "yes"... ask someone else and launch through them. The feds don't own space. You can launch from a lot of places. Talk to the French, talk to the russians, talk to the chinese, talk to the indians.

    Make that part of your ask from the FCC... unofficially make it clear you're going to do it. And the only

  • The FCC's regulatory authority doesn't extend to space. I'm not saying SpaceX shouldn't tell them, it's the polite thing to do, but asking for permission?

    I suppose they know what they're doing, but if the FCC says "no", I think they should consider responding with the finger and a launch.

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