SpaceX granted permission by FCC to fly Starlink satellites in lower orbit, despite Amazon, Viasat opposition

Competitors claim the move would stifle competition by creating interference with other satellite networks and increase the risk of collisions

SpaceX has been granted permission from the Federal Communications Commission to fly its Starlink satellites in lower orbits, despite opposition from competitors including Amazon's Kuiper Systems and Viasat, who argue that the move would "harm the public interest." 

The aerospace company asked the FCC to lower the altitude range for 2,814 new Starlink satellites from 1,100-1,300 kilometers to 540-570 kilometers, where 1,584 Starlink satellites have already been previously authorized to operate. The requested zone is just below the orbit assigned to Project Kuiper. 

"Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems," the FCC stated in its order on Tuesday approving the modification.

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Viasat and Amazon have pushed back against SpaceX's claim that the move would improve space safety, arguing that satellites would be forced to transit through more densely populated and already congested orbits. 

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In addition, Viasat claims SpaceX has not provided analysis demonstrating how latency, the time it takes to send data from one point to the next, will change by reducing the Starlink satellites' operating altitude. Amazon has also alleged that the move to a lower orbit would stifle competition by creating interference with other satellite networks. 

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Amazon's dispute with SpaceX over the satellites' position was made public earlier this year, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted in January that the Jeff Bezos-owned company was attempting to "hamstring" Starlink.

"It does not serve the public interest to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation," Musk tweeted.

Amazon fired back with a lengthy statement on Twitter.

"The facts are simple. We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system. Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers," Amazon wrote. "Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems. It is clearly in SpaceX’s interest to smother competition in the cradle if they can, but it is certainly not in the public’s interest."

Kuiper received authorization last year from the FCC to put more than 3,200 satellites into orbit, though no Kuiper satellites have been launched so far. Meanwhile, Starlink has been authorized to launch 12,000 satellites into orbit and submitted paperwork for another 30,000 in December 2019. Starlink has launched over 1,000 satellites into orbit to date and has over 10,000 users in the United States and abroad since its "Better Than Nothing" beta launched domestically and internationally in October.

SpaceX plans to launch its latest batch of 60 Starlink satellites on Wednesday. 

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Based on its own review, the FCC determined the modification was in the public interest and would improve service for Starlink customers. 

"We conclude that the lower elevation angle of its earth station antennas and lower altitude of its satellites enables a better user experience by improving speeds and latency," the FCC said. "Additionally, a number of the satellites being deployed pursuant to this modification are satellites orbiting at high inclinations, which are uniquely able to provide improved service to higher latitude regions."

The FCC noted that the deployment to a lower altitude will slow SpaceX satellites down due to higher atmospheric drag, resulting in a "lower collision risk and an improved orbital debris environment." In addition, the agency said that the modification "guarantees removal of satellites from orbit within a relatively short period of time" and concluded the move "does not create significant interference problems that would warrant treatment of SpaceX’s system as if it were filed in a later processing round." 

To address competitors' concerns, SpaceX must operate on a "non-harmful interference basis" and accept any interference received as a result of the modification, maintain satellite orbits at or below 580 kilometers, and issue a report twice a year that details the number of Starlink "conjunction events," or near misses with other satellites, in the past six months, as well as the number of Starlink satellites that were disposed of or re-entered Earth's atmosphere.

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In a tweet reacting to the decision, Musk said the FCC is "fair & sensible," adding that he agrees with regulators "99.9% of the time."

"On rare occasions, we disagree," Musk added. "This is almost always due to new technologies that past regulations didn’t anticipate."

Despite its objections to the modification, Amazon called the decision a "positive outcome" that "places clear conditions on SpaceX." 

"These conditions address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the Commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low earth orbit," the company said in a statement. 

The win for SpaceX comes one day after Musk teased Bezos's Blue Origin, which reportedly plans to contest a $2.9 billion NASA contract awarded to SpaceX earlier this month.