SpaceX Looks to Expand Starlink’s Broadband Capacity in UK

SpaceX is seeking approval from Ofcom for a variation of its existing gateway licence, which would enable Starlink’s mega constellation of ultrafast broadband satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to improve its capacity, such as by expanding the number of gateway antennas at several UK sites and adopting additional bands.

The operator currently has 5,874 LEO satellites in orbit around the Earth (altitudes of c.500-600km) and they’re in the process of adding thousands more by the end of 2027. Customers in the UK typically pay from £75 a month for a 30-day term, plus £449 for hardware (currently discounted to £225 or £150 if refurbished) on the ‘Standard’ plan, which promises internet latency times of 25-50ms, downloads of c. 25-100Mbps and uploads of c. 5-10Mbps.

NOTE: At the end of 2023 Starlink’s global network had 2.3 million customers (currently 2.6m) and 42,000 of those were in the UK (up from 13,000 in 2022) – mostly in rural areas.

In order to operate this network in the UK, the provider currently holds several NGSO (Non-Geostationary Earth Station) gateway licences, which help to connect their NGSO system to the internet via large dishes on the ground. SpaceX wants to update four of these to help boost capacity and “serve growing demand for its broadband services” (mostly to serve their latest Gen 2 satellites).

Specifically, SpaceX is seeking permission from Ofcom to expand the number of antennas hosted at four of its remaining seven sites – Fawley (licence number 1293217), Isle of Man (licence number 249304/1), Wherstead (licence number 1293534) and Woodwalton (licence number 1293303). The gateway sites are currently authorised to operate up to 9 Ka-band parabolic antennas; they serve customers in the UK and adjacent countries.

SpaceX’s Request to Ofcom

➤ An additional 24 antennas at Fawley, Wherstead and Woodwalton, bringing the total number of antennas at each of those sites to 32. It plans to operate these new antennas in the bands: 27.5-28.0525 GHz, 28.4445-29.0605 GHz, 29.4525-30GHz.

➤ An additional 32 antennas at its Isle of Man site, bringing the total there to 40. SpaceX already has access to all the frequencies it wishes to use (27.5-30GHz) at the Isle of Man site.

Our initial assessment is that SpaceX’s requested variation should not unduly affect other licenced NGSO services, future NGSO services, GSO services or Fixed links operating in the same user frequencies,” said the regulator’s consultation, which will remain open for responses until 31st May 2024.

NOTE: The FCC in the United States has so far authorised Starlink’s Gen1 constellation for 4,408 satellites and their Gen2 constellation for 7,500.

Separately, satellite operator Inmarsat (Viasat) has applied for an NGSO Earth Station Network Licence for its new GX-10 non-geostationary orbiting (NGSO) satellite system (here). “Inmarsat has stated it plans to use GX-10 to extend the coverage of its existing Global Xpress satellite system over the polar region, providing satellite communication services to government, defence, aero and maritime commercial customers,” said Ofcom.

Inmarsat’s proposed service area covers latitudes above 65N and their satellites will also provide intermittent service over parts of the UK, although this isn’t their main focus. The service will use the Ka-band frequencies 19.7 – 20.2GHz and 29.5 – 30GHz. Ofcom are consulting on all this until 31st May 2024, but have provisionally proposed to approve the request.

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