FCC Approves Use of Starlink for Large Vehicles

The FCC approved use of Starlink’s satellite Internet service for large vehicles like planes, boats, and trucks. SpaceX already has a specially designed receiver dish that can be mounted to large vehicles – though it doesn’t have one that is suitable for personal cars yet.

“Authorizing a new class of [customer] terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” FCC international bureau chief Tom Sullivan said.

SpaceX already has a few deals with airlines, including Hawaiian Airlines and the charter plane service JSX, to provide in-flight Internet access. It called existing in-flight Wi-Fi “ripe for an overhaul.”

Most in-flight Wi-Fi relies on either powerful ground stations that can send signals to airplanes in flight, or satellites like Starlink’s constellation. Many satellite-based services suffer from poor response times, also known as latency, because they rely on geosychronous satellites that have been placed farther from Earth than the Moon’s orbit.

This means it can take several seconds for a device connected to a satellite-based Internet service to get a reply with the requested data. Starlink aims to improve latency by placing its satellites in low Earth orbit, which has often irked competitors like ViaSat and OneWeb. Both competitors have gotten into disputes with SpaceX over Starlink with regulators acting as referees in the past, which in turn annoyed SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Unlike the geosynchronous Internet satellites, Starlink’s Internet speeds and latency are already nearly comparable with “traditional” broadband Internet. This can make Starlink a viable alternative for any application that relies on fast response times and access to real-time data when other ways to access to the Internet may not work.

(Unlike the competitors, SpaceX has been aggressive about demonstrating the usefulness of Starlink in real world situations like an invasion. Its most recent move in this department involved sending Starlink terminals to Ukraine and beefing up its security to resist jamming.)

With the new clearance, the service for moving vehicles can be extended for applications like public transportation, trains, and RV trips. It already had approval to provide service for parked vehicles like an RV at a campground, though it charged a portability fee. Now it can provide services to large vehicles like RVs while they are in motion.

The FCC’s approval sets the conditions that Starlink accept that there may be interference with its satellites’ signals to terminals in motion. Starlink is currently in a dispute with the satellite TV service Dish Network over the 12-gigahertz band, which SpaceX has called on regulators to settle.

The FCC also requires that Starlink accept the potential for additional requirements and conditions for its new mobile service.