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How SpaceX Plans to Test Its Satellite Internet Service in 2016

by Alan Boyle /  / Updated 
Image: OneWeb network
OneWeb's satellite network would be designed to provide global coverage.OneWeb

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It's been less than six months since SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, announced his plans to build a satellite constellation to provide low-cost global Internet service — and now SpaceX has revealed how it intends to begin the project next year.

In filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the California-based company says it will start with the launch of two prototype satellites, dubbed MicroSat-1a and MicroSat-1b.

The Ku-band satellite ground stations will be built on the premises of three of Musk's facilities: SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California; the company's new office in Redmond, Washington, where engineers will be focusing on the satellite venture; and the Fremont, California, headquarters of Tesla Motors, where Musk is chief executive officer.

SpaceX says the the satellites will fly in a circular 388-mile-high (625-kilometer-high) orbit and follow a nearly pole-to-pole course. That suggests that the satellites would be sent up from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where SpaceX has a launch pad.

Experimental constellation

The prototype satellites are being designed to operate for six to 12 months, and perhaps longer. Eventually, six to eight prototypes would be deployed, SpaceX said in its filings. Experiments would be run on a roughly daily basis, for less than 10 minutes at a time.

The initial program's main objective "is to validate the design of a broadband antenna communications platform ... that will lead to the final LEO [low-Earth orbit] constellation design," SpaceX said in its filings.

The documents, dated May 29, came to light in a posting to Reddit's SpaceX forum this week. A spokesman for SpaceX, Phil Larson, confirmed the substance of the filings to NBC News.

The details laid out in the documents are in line with Musk's announced plan to build and launch thousands of small telecom satellites for cheap, widespread Internet access. In January, Musk said that a "useful version one" of the project could be deployed in five years, with the second- and third-generation system rolled out over five-year intervals.

Google and Fidelity have made a $1 billion investment in SpaceX to support the project.

A world of competitors

Musk isn't the only billionaire with ambitions of providing global Internet service. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson joined forces with Qualcomm to back a rival satellite venture known as OneWeb. Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins also have partnered with OneWeb.

OneWeb's founder and CEO, Greg Wyler, told NBC News in March that the first launches for the satellite constellation were targeted for 2017, with network activation in 2019. Branson's Virgin Galactic would take on some of the launches, and other launch providers may participate as well — but probably not SpaceX.

Related: New Ventures Revive Buzz Over Satellite Internet

The market for Internet service could undergo radical changes in years to come, and not just because of satellite networks. Google is experimenting with a balloon-based network called Project Loon as well as a drone test project. Meanwhile, Facebook is working on an airplane-based system for Internet service.

Back in March, Wyler said it didn't bother him that so many companies were jumping into the aerial Internet access market. "It's best not to look at things in terms of being competitive," he said, "because the market is so large."

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