SpaceX has received FCC approval to offer lower-latency satellite broadband service in the U.S. SpaceX FCC approval paves the way for the company to provide broadband service in remote areas lacking equivalent terrestrial-based offerings.

SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, is best known for rocket launches but is also planning to launch 4,425 satellites in low-Earth orbits to support global satellite broadband service. This approach should support lower-latency service in comparison with service from traditional satellite broadband providers such as Hughes Network Systems and VisSat that use geostationary satellites that orbit the earth at higher altitudes.

Another concern about satellite broadband service is that it typically has usage caps because the total capacity of individual satellites is limited. The SpaceX broadband offering reportedly would have more capacity than traditional satellite broadband offerings, but it is unclear whether that capacity would be sufficient to put the service on level footing with wireline offerings such as fiber-to-the-home or cable modem service.

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SpaceX FCC Approval
The SpaceX FCC approval comes at a time when U.S. policymakers have shown a strong interest in enabling the deployment of broadband service to all Americans, including in rural areas that are costly to serve. The FCC recently allocated an additional $540 million to the Universal Service program high-cost fund, which has an annual budget of about $4 billion to cover some of the costs of bringing broadband to high-cost areas.

SpaceX potentially could be eligible for Universal Service funding, but whether it is eligible for funding for all target areas or only for extremely remote areas will depend on the precise latency and usage caps of its service. The FCC has set latency and usage cap limits for most target areas but plans to relax those requirements for the most remote areas that are most costly to serve.

SpaceX isn’t the first company approved to provide low-Earth orbit broadband service in the U.S. but it is the first U.S.-based company, according to an FCC press release.  Other companies that have received FCC approval include Space Norway, OneWeb and Telesat, the FCC said.

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last month in a statement recommending the SpaceX approval. “SpaceX’s application—along with those of other satellite companies seeking licenses or access to the U.S. market for non-geostationary satellite orbit systems—involves one such innovation. Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.”

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