Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite service gets US approval for use on vessels

The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted authorisation to Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to provide Starlink Ku-band satellite connectivity to moving vehicles and vessels for the first time, opening up the possibility for the firm to offer its broadband service to the maritime sector.

The FCC approval was issued on June 30th covering various mobility applications for the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satcom service, granting authorisation to SpaceX to “operate Earth Stations In Motion (ESIM) on vessels in US territorial waters and throughout international waters worldwide.”

ESIMs is the collective designation for three types of earth stations that the FCC has authorised to transmit signals in SpaceX’s previously allocated Ku-band frequency while in motion – Earth Stations on Vessels (ESVs), Vehicle-Mounted Earth Stations (VMESs), and Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (ESAAs).

The authorisation document also notes that the authorities have dismissed a petition to deny or hold in abeyance by satellite operator ViaSat, which is currently in the process of completing its own acquisition of Inmarsat.

SpaceX filed an application to operate mobile earth stations on vessels and other moving vehicles in March 2021, to supplement its existing services in fixed satellite communications offered to homes and businesses on land.

Starlink currently has more than 2,400 satellites in orbit, a little more than half of the approximately 4,400 satellites planned for its first-generation network.

“Although Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) traditionally involves communications between satellites in orbit and earth stations at fixed locations, the growing demand for broadband communications to vessels, land vehicles, and aircraft has resulted in increased use of FSS for mobility applications,” said the FCC, in its ruling.

“ESIMs can enable the provision of very high data rate broadband communications, navigation, situational awareness, and other services to mobile platforms that often cannot be served using other communications technologies.”

The document goes on to note that: “Authorizing a new class of 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 US port, or while on a domestic or international flight.”

The FCC’s SpaceX ruling document also covered another application for authorisation to provide LEO Ku-band services to vessels at sea from Kepler Communications, which was similarly granted licence to operate unlimited Earth Stations on Vessels (ESVs) in the territorial waters of the United States and aboard US-registered vessels throughout international waters worldwide.

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Rob O'Dwyer

Rob is Chief Network Officer and one of the founders of Smart Maritime Network. He also serves as Chairman of the Smart Maritime Council. Rob has worked in the maritime technology sector since 2005, managing editorial for a range of leading publications in the transport and logistics sector. Get in touch by email by clicking here, or on LinkedIn by clicking here.

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