According to new documentation filed with the FCC, SpaceX is acquiring a California-based company named Swarm, which has been working on nanosatellites that can provide low-cost Internet connectivity. The filings asked the FCC to transfer Swarm’s satellite licenses to SpaceX.
“The Proposed Transaction will serve the public interest by strengthening the combined companies’ ability to provide innovative satellite services that reach unserved and underserved parts of the world,” SpaceX said in the paperwork.
SpaceX already has more than 1,650 Starlink satellites in orbit and president Gwynn Shotwell says that it will be ready to provide global Internet access by September. According to recent Speedtest data, Starlink can already almost match “traditional” broadband Internet services for speed and latency, especially when compared to the competition.
SpaceX prefers to launch Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, which allows for latency times as low as 42 milliseconds. By way of comparison, HughesNet and ViaSat have satellites in geosynchronous orbits, with the best latency time clocking in at a more noticeable 630 milliseconds. Typical broadband service, which relies on land lines, can get latency as low as 14 milliseconds.
The latest speed tests indicate that Starlink can get download speeds of 97.23 Mbps, compared to traditional broadband’s 115.22 Mbps. HughesNet is only capable of 19.73 Mbps download speed and ViaSat gets 18.13 Mbps download speed. (No wonder ViaSat has been jealous lately.)
While SpaceX hasn’t specifically said what it expects to get out of acquiring Swarm, its new acquisition had been focusing on delivering Internet connectivity to Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Swarm already has 150 satellites in orbit, each of which weighs only 0.8 pounds. It has been charging $5 a month per IoT device to relay Internet signals through its satellites.
“The Swarm network is a store-and-forward system, and the satellites can store 4000 messages,” Swarm says on its website.
SpaceX currently has regulatory approval to launch up to 12,000 Starlink satellites and says that it could ultimately launch as many as 42,000 satellites. Astronomy hobbyists and aerospace industry insiders have expressed concern about having so many satellites cluttering up low Earth orbit, interfering with viewing, and potentially adding to the space junk problem.
SpaceX charges a $99 per month subscription fee and a one-time $499 fee for the equipment needed to access Starlink’s Internet service. SpaceX has said that it takes a loss on every Starlink kit that it sells. It say that it costs $1000 to manufacture each kit, though it is working to bring that cost down.
Because of the upfront cost, which may be unaffordable to some of the most likely customers, SpaceX has been working with some entities like the Cherokee Nation, a school district in Texas, and Chile’s government to bring the Internet to people who may have previously been left out by developers of Internet infrastructure due to their locations in isolated or low-income areas.
Its aim with the new acquisition may be bringing that cost down by acquiring Swarm’s satellite technology and research team, along with gaining the potential of delivering reliable high-speed Internet service with smaller satellites, which would give SpaceX the ability to include more satellites per launch on its Falcon 9 rockets. Starlink is still conducting the “Better than Nothing Beta” and has more than 500,000 potential subscribers on its waiting list.