A stack of Starlink V2 Minis, which SpaceX says are designed to fully demise during atmospheric reentry like the rest of the satellites in its broadband constellation. Credit: SpaceX

TAMPA, Fla. — SpaceX has secured conditional approval to use extremely high-frequency E-band radio waves to improve the capacity of its low Earth orbit Starlink broadband constellation.

The Federal Communications Commission said March 8 it is allowing SpaceX to use E-band frequencies between second-generation Starlink satellites and gateways on the ground, alongside already approved spectrum in the Ka and Ku bands.

Specifically, SpaceX is now also permitted to communicate between 71 and 76 gigahertz from space to Earth, and 81-86 GHz Earth-to-space, using the up to 7,500 Gen2 satellites SpaceX is allowed to deploy.

SpaceX has plans for 30,000 Gen2 satellites, on top of the 4,400 Gen1 satellites already authorized by the FCC.

However, the FCC deferred action in December 2022 on whether to allow SpaceX to deploy the other three-quarters of its Gen2 constellation, which includes spacecraft closer to Earth to improve broadband speeds.

The regulator also deferred action at the time on SpaceX’s plans to use E-band frequencies, citing a need to first establish ground rules for using them in space.

In a March 8 regulatory filing, the FCC said it found “SpaceX’s proposed operations in the E-band present no new or increased frequency conflicts with other satellite operations.”

But the order comes with multiple conditions, including potentially forcing SpaceX to modify operations if another satellite operator also seeks to use the radio waves.

Starlink satellites use Ku-band to connect user terminals. In October, the FCC allowed SpaceX to also provide fixed-satellite services from Gen2 spacecraft using V-band spectrum, which like E-band is also extremely high frequency (EHF) and in its commercial infancy.

Higher frequency spectrum bands promise more bandwidth and throughput as they become increasingly subject to weather attenuation and other issues.

Last year, SpaceX said using E-band radio waves for backhaul would enable Starlink Gen2 to provide about four times more capacity per satellite than earlier iterations, without elaborating.

There are currently around 1900 Starlink satellites launched under the Gen2 license in orbit, according to spacecraft tracker and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell — about two-thirds of these satellites are significantly larger and more powerful than Gen1 but smaller than full-scale versions slated to launch on SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. Around 3,600 separate satellites in orbit are classed as Gen1.

The FCC continues to defer action over whether to allow SpaceX to deploy the other 22,500 satellites in its proposed Gen2 constellation. 

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...