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.