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SpaceX gains official approval to launch high-speed satellite Internet service

March 29, 2018 at 6:42 PM

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying ten satellites for the Iridium communications company blasted off from Vandenburg Air Force Base March 30. (Reuters)

SpaceX has received official permission from the U.S. government to launch a fleet of satellites designed to beam high-speed Internet signals down to Earth.

The decision marks a major milestone for chief executive Elon Musk as he pursues a dream of putting 12,000 small satellites into low Earth orbit, connecting rural and developing parts of the world to the Internet.

In more-connected areas, the technology could inject a new competitor into markets that have historically been dominated by one or two Internet providers — potentially driving down prices, increasing speeds and improving service.

Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission issued the approval late Thursday, saying it was the first time the agency had approved a U.S.-licensed satellite operation using the broadband technology.

The order comes weeks after SpaceX launched demo satellites, Tintin A and Tintin B, into orbit to test the concept. SpaceX's first satellites are expected to come online next year.

The proposed satellite network would differ from current satellite data technology, which is slow and expensive. Under Musk's plan, SpaceX's satellite fleet would orbit much closer to Earth than traditional communications satellites that stay in geostationary orbit high above Earth. That means data will travel to and from the satellite much more quickly — increasing the speed and reliability of the connection.

“Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, this is an important step toward the company building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected.”

But some have criticized the plan as a potential safety hazard. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said Thursday that the satellites, while innovative, could raise the risk of increasing the amount of debris in space.

Read more:

SpaceX wants to beam Internet down to Earth. Here's how it'll start.

SpaceX's Internet satellites are part of a wave of new tech that could give you more choice in broadband providers

We're one step closer to getting cheaper, faster Internet from space

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Brian Fung covers business and technology for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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