SpaceX President and Chief Operating Office Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is confident it can start offering broadband service in the United States via its Starlink constellation in mid-2020, the company’s president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said Oct. 22.

Getting there will require the company to launch six to eight batches of satellites, Shotwell told reporters during a media roundtable. SpaceX also has to finish the design and engineering of the user terminals, which is not a minor challenge, Shotwell acknowledged.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has a Starlink terminal at his house and he used it to send a tweet early on Oct. 22.”Sending this tweet through space via Starlink satellite,” he tweeted to his 29 million followers. ”Whoa, it worked!!”

Shotwell said SpaceX will need to complete six to eight Starlink launches — including the one that already took place in May — to ensure continuous service in upper and lower latitude bands. “We need 24 launches to get global coverage,” she said. “Every launch after that gives you more capacity.”

The company caused a stir last week when it requested the International Telecommunication Union to approve spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites to build the world’s largest low-Earth orbit broadband constellation. This was in addition to 12,000 already approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Shotwell said SpaceX is not certain that will need that many satellites. Far fewer are needed for global coverage but the company wants extra spacecraft to be able to offer customers customized service options. Starlink is a mesh network of satellites connected to each other by space lasers.

“We’ll continue to upgrade the network until mid to late next year,” said Shotwell. “We’re hoping for 24 launches by the end of next year.”

Shotwell said many of the Starlink features are being tested by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory under a program called Global Lightning. SpaceX in December 2018 received a $28 million contract to test over the next three years different ways in which the military might use Starlink broadband services. So far, SpaceX has demonstrated data throughput of 610 megabits per second in flight to the cockpit of a U.S. military C-12 twin-engine turboprop aircraft.

SpaceX wants to offer the service to the U.S. government but is now focused on how it will serve the consumer market. Many of the details of how the service will be rolled out remain to be worked out, she said. When possible it will be offered directly to consumers following Musk’s Tesla model for selling cars. In many countries the company will be required to partner with local telecom firms to offer the service.

Shotwell recognized a lot of this is uncharted territory for SpaceX. “This is very different business for SpaceX,” she said. “It’s leveraging space technology but it’s a consumer business.”

She said Starlink is considered “additive to our business,” meaning that it will not replace space launch services as SpaceX’s primary source of revenue.

SpaceX will have to hire a whole new workforce to deal with sales, tech support and product engineering. User terminals are a major concern. “The more engineering we do on the user terminal, the less service people we will have to hire,” said Shotwell, Terminals are one aspect of the Starlink business that the company has to “get right,” she said.

When consumers sign up, “they are going to receive a box from SpaceX” with a user terminal and a cord, said Shotwell. How that gets connected and where the terminals should be placed in someone’s home are still issues to be ironed out. “We still have a lot to do to get that right,” said Shotwell. “Knowing Elon, he wants everything to be beautiful. So the user terminal will be beautiful.”

The price point is also being studied. Shotwell said millions of people in the U.S. pay $80 per month to get “crappy service.” She didn’t say whether Starlink will cost more or less than $80 per month but suggested that would be a segment of the public the company would target as well as rural areas that currently have no connectivity.

Outside the United States, SpaceX is working nation by nation to get authorization to offer the service. “Every country has its own process,” said Shotwell.

The terminals today are being produced at SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California. But mass manufacturing in the future will move to a different location Shotwell declined to name.

SpaceX is racing to get Starlink in operation as several other companies continue to build competing broadband constellations. Shotwell said there is probably room in the market for at least two competitors. “If we do well and make money, there will be competitors.”

As more Starlink launches are planned, SpaceX wants to use previously flown Falcon boosters as much as possible, said Shotwell. “I think we’ll manage the fleet how best we manage the fleet,” she said. “Our intent is to use Starlink to push the capability of those boosters and see how many missions they can do.”

A single Falcon booster was designed for 10 flights. The next Starlink mission scheduled in mid-November will be launched by a booster on its fourth flight.

Since SpaceX started returning boosters in 2015, 44 first stages were recovered: 26 at sea and 18 on land. So far 23 of the recovered boosters have flown.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...