FCC grants OneWeb approval to launch over 700 satellites for ‘space internet’

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FCC chairman Ajit Pai has released a statement announcing that the commission has granted OneWeb approval for US market access to launch a network of internet-beaming satellites into orbit. OneWeb, which is backed in part by Richard Branson, has been working on providing broadband internet via satellite since 2000, when it acquired the satellite spectrum formerly owned by SkyBridge.

OneWeb plans to launch a constellation of 720 low-Earth orbit satellites using non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) technology in order to provide global, high-speed broadband. The company’s goal has far-reaching implications, and would provide internet to rural and hard-to-reach areas that currently have little access to internet connectivity. Additionally, OneWeb has a targets of “connecting every unconnected school” by 2022, and “bridging the digital divide” by 2027.

Other companies are currently planning similar “space internet” satellite constellations, including Boeing, ViaSat, Telesat, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has been meeting with the FCC for months. Tom Sullivan, chief of the FCC’s International Bureau, says the additional applications range from “as little as two satellites to as many as 4,000,” and are still under review by the bureau.

According to OneWeb, the company plans to launch an initial 10 production satellites in early 2018, which, pending tests, will then be followed by a full launch as early as 2019.

While Pai’s statement grants access, it is still only a first step. FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a statement that the “scope of these systems has raised many issues, such as preventing in-line interference and orbital debris, which will need to be considered further.” Additionally, “there are also multiple conditions on OneWeb’s approval. For example, access to some frequencies could be restricted by future Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service (MVDDS) proceedings and our action today is conditioned on the outcome of the larger NGSO rulemaking.”

Even with hurdles, this news puts OneWeb well on the way toward creating space internet, making broadband access for all a more tangible reality.

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