Science & Technology

Boeing gets FCC approval to launch its own Internet satellite constellation

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorized Boeing’s request to build and launch its own satellite-based Internet service, paving the way for another competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink project. According to the announcement letter from the FCC, Boeing intends to use its future satellite constellation to provide “broadband and communications services” around the world.

Boeing’s road to approval

The FCC approval gives Boeing a license to build, deploy, and operate its communications and Internet-delivering satellite constellation. The company intends to offer these services for “residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and professional users” in the US and other countries around the world, according to the application submitted.

Boeing’s application and subsequent approval cover the launch of 147 satellites, 132 of which will be positioned in low Earth orbit with the remaining 15 orbiting at much greater altitudes. Boeing submitted its application for the satellite constellation with the FCC in March 2017, stating in the document [PDF] that “careful management” of its constellation “will achieve global coverage and a clear path to universal access to broadband services.”

Space Internet benefits

High-speed Internet delivered using low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations is a budding industry largely spurred by SpaceX Starlink. Delivering Internet using satellite constellations in LEO enables providers to offer services in regions where high-speed broadband is overpriced or entirely unavailable, including many rural towns still limited to slow DSL.

Unlike existing satellite Internet services, constellations in LEO will provide low-latency high-speed broadband, enabling the sort of everyday Internet activities one may perform on cable services, including gaming and streaming.

Back in August, the Congressional Research Service published a report on this technology’s potential to address broadband inequality in the US. Congress addressed the pandemic and the ways in which it demonstrated the vital importance of high-speed Internet access, including for key parts of life like school and work.

The report cautions that there are still unknowns about the technology, however, stating:

Companies are in the process of developing, testing, and deploying LEO satellites for broadband delivery with the hope that they may provide higher speeds, lower latency, and expanded coverage. There are many unknowns—for example, whether LEO satellites can consistently provide the anticipated lower latency and higher speeds. Other uncertainties include what LEO satellite provider competition might look like, or how affordable broadband service provided by LEO satellites may — or may not — be.

Competitors

Boeing’s satellite constellation plans haven’t gone entirely smoothly for the company. SpaceX had argued that Boeing’s competing product would interfere with its Starlink system, claiming that Boeing should have additional requirements put in place. The FCC rejected those arguments, however, stating that “operators must coordinate in good faith the use of commonly authorized frequencies.”

When it comes to high-speed Internet delivered via LEO satellites, SpaceX is ahead of the pack with its Starlink product, but it won’t be the only big company offering this sort of service for long. In addition to Boeing with the approval granted for its (small) launch, Amazon is also eyeing low Earth orbit for its own space satellite service.

Amazon’s system is currently known as Project Kuiper, and it recently received FCC approval to launch two satellites for in-space testing. In the more distant future, Amazon aims to construct and deploy more than 3,200 LEO satellites to provide its own global Internet service.

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