SpaceX has asked the government for permission to test what could someday be a massive network of satellites that will beam Internet service down to Earth.
The application, filed Wednesday to the Federal Communications Commission, proposes a fleet of what will eventually include more than 4,400 satellites, covering the United States and the rest of the globe. SpaceX needs regulatory approval from the FCC to use the wireless airwaves that would power this network.
Orbiting more than 700 miles up, the satellites could provide speeds as fast as 1 gigabit per second, per user, according to a technical attachment to the filing. That's as much bandwidth as some premium Internet providers offer entire households. SpaceX would start by launching 800 satellites, the filing said.
“The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide,” according to the technical attachment. “Once fully deployed, the SpaceX System will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service.”
Each satellite would be able to cover a territory on the ground spanning more than 1,300 miles and capable of talking to other satellites to distribute traffic loads.
SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk announced the plan in 2015, saying it would cost $10 billion and provide an alternative to slow, uncompetitive Internet providers on the ground.
“In cases where people are stuck with Time Warner or Comcast, this would provide an opportunity to leave,” he said.
Other companies have looked to space as a way to provide Internet access. Facebook and Google have both explored the idea of using satellites and drones to beam broadband down to earth. Also competing to provide satellite broadband is OneWeb, a broadband startup that plans a network of several hundred satellites. The big bottleneck, analysts say, is getting access to the wireless airwaves required to make the system work. Google and another company, Fidelity, have invested in SpaceX to support the project.