SpaceX seeks FCC’s OK to extend Starlink satellite service to vehicles, ships, planes

·3 min read
Starlink antenna with cityscape
SpaceX’s Starlink antenna connects with a network of satellites to provide high-speed internet access. (SpaceX Starlink Photo)

SpaceX is asking the Federal Communications Commission to authorize the operation of equipment extending the company’s Starlink satellite broadband internet service to aircraft, ships and moving vehicles.

Commercial mobile services would represent a new frontier for Starlink, which got its start in Redmond, Wash., and is currently beta-testing its service using fixed antennas. SpaceX’s entry into the mobility market could also complicate matters for Redmond-based Kymeta Corp., a connectivity venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

In its application to the FCC, filed on Friday, SpaceX said expanding Starlink availability to moving vehicles throughout the U.S. and to moving vessels and aircraft worldwide would serve the public interest. “The urgency to provide broadband service to unserved and underserved areas has never been clearer,” David Goldman, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, said in the filing.

Goldman said SpaceX’s “Earth Stations in Motion,” or ESIMs, would be “electrically identical” versions of the $499 antenna systems that are already being sold to beta customers. He suggested that they’d be counted among the million end-user stations that have already been authorized by the FCC.

In an online job posting that came to light last week, SpaceX said it’s planning to manufacture “millions of consumer-facing devices” for Starlink service at a factory to be built in Austin, Texas.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet that Starlink’s ESIM terminals would be “much too big” to mount on cars — such as the electric cars that are made by Tesla, the other company that Musk heads — but would be suitable for large trucks and RVs.

Starlink satellite operations are headquartered at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, which is listed as the remote control point location in the new FCC application. Several miles away, Kymeta has been working on its own mobile connectivity system, which uses flat-panel antennas to provide hybrid satellite-cellular service.

Last November, Kymeta rolled out its next-generation u8 system, which can extend broadband connectivity to moving vehicles on land, air and sea. At the time, Kymeta executive Neville Meijers told GeekWire that his company would “support all of the different platforms that are out there,” including Starlink.

From Kymeta’s perspective, hardware compatibility with Starlink is a clear marketing plus. But if the FCC OKs SpaceX’s plans to provide its own hardware for mobile connectivity, that could cut into Kymeta’s market. We’ve reached out to Kymeta for comment and will update this report with anything we hear back.

SpaceX and Kymeta aren’t the only competitors in the satellite connectivity race: With conditional clearance from the FCC, Amazon has committed $10 billion to its Project Kuiper satellite effort, which is also headquartered in Redmond. The British-Indian OneWeb venture and Canada’s biggest satellite operator, Telesat, are building broadband satellite constellations in low Earth orbit as well.

The FCC is already considering a request from SpaceX to rework the Starlink constellation’s orbital parameters, with Amazon voicing opposition. The commission’s decisions relating to that issue, and to SpaceX’s plan for mobile broadband service, could signal the Biden administration’s approach to the proliferation of mega-constellations.

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