SpaceX successfully launches 60 more of its Starlink high-speed broadband internet satellites

SpaceX has launched its latest batch of Starlink internet satellites, a full complement of 60 spacecraft that will join those already on orbit to add to the constellation. These will form the backbone of SpaceX’s broadband internet service, which will aim to provide low-latency, high-speed connections to customers and regions where quality, consistent service hasn’t been available.

The launch took place at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, from SpaceX’s launch facility at 8:46 AM EDT (5:46 AM PDT). The Falcon 9 rocket used on the launch included a first-stage booster that flew once previously – just a few months ago in June. SpaceX also successfully recovered the Falcon 9 booster once again with a controlled landing at sea on its ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone landing ship.

The company will also be attempting to recover the fairing used to protect the satellites during launch for this mission, which includes two halves that have a combined value of around $6 million per launch.

Lately, SpaceX has been flying Starlink missions with shared payloads, dedicated a small amount of the available cargo space to clients including Planet and others for their own satellites. Today’s launch was a return to form of earlier Starlink missions, carrying only SpaceX’s own satellites. This was the 12th total Starlink mission, and the 10th this year alone.

SpaceX also confirmed that its Starlink service is currently in private beta testing, and that a public beta test is planned for later this year. The company hopes to begin to offer paid service more broadly next year.

Watch SpaceX launch its 12th Starlink satellite internet mission live

SpaceX is about to hit an even dozen for its Starlink launches, which carry the company’s own broadband internet satellites to low Earth orbit. This flight carries a full 60-satellite complement of the Starlink spacecraft, after the last couple of these have reserved a little space for client payloads. The launch is set to take off at 8:46 AM EDT (5:46 AM PDT) from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and there’s a backup opportunity tomorrow morning should it need to be scrubbed for any reason.

This mission will use a Falcon 9 booster that has flown once previously, just a few months ago in June for a mission that delivered a GPS III satellite on behalf of the U.S. Space Force. SpaceX will also try to recover the booster with a landing at sea on its ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone landing ship.

Starlink has been by far the most frequent launch focus for SpaceX this year, as the company ramps the size of its active constellation in preparation for the deployment of its service in the U.S. According to some internet speed testing websites, the service is already being used by some individuals, and a leak from SpaceX’s dedicated Starlink website indicates a broader public beta test is imminent. The company has said service should be available in parts of the U.S. and Canada by later this year, with a planned expansion to follow in 2021.

The webcast above should go live about 15 minutes prior to the liftoff time, so at around 8:31 AM EDT (5:31 AM PDT).

FCC dings company for $164K after its false broadband claims distorted national report

The FCC was deeply embarrassed last year when it was found that its rosy broadband deployment report was off by millions, owing to a single, extremely suspect filing that conjured 62 million customers out of thin air. The company responsible is being assessed a $163,912 fine, but the underlying problems that let it happen haven’t been fixed — as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel assesses it: “What a mess.”

The issue, as critics and the Commission itself have pointed out for years, is that the broadband industry reports its own numbers on what amounts to the honor system. There’s no other explanation for how BarrierFree, which no one outside of one county could know of, could — after failing to file its paperwork properly 26 times — suddenly claim to serve a quarter of the country, and that information made it all the way to a national report and public statement by the Chairman.

“This should have set off alarm bells at the FCC,” said Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the agency’s announcement of the fine. “In fact, agency staff reached out to the company nearly a dozen times over multiple years, including after this suspect data was filed. Despite these efforts behind the scenes, on February 19, 2019, the FCC used the erroneous data filed by BarrierFree in a press release, claiming great progress in closing the nation’s digital divide. When an outside party pointed out this was based on fraudulent information, the FCC was forced to revise its claim.”

The outside party in question, Free Press, has consistently provided a valuable counterpoint to the FCC’s narrative on various efforts, from this report to long-running issues like net neutrality.

Since (and really, before) then, there have been calls to revise the way the FCC measures and reports the progress of broadband deployment across the country. Considering this is one of the agency’s primary responsibilities, it’s worth updating a process that has proven over and over to be error-ridden and inaccurate.

There are better tools in the works, but they didn’t arrive fast enough to save the credibility of the 2020 broadband deployment report. In fact, the FCC should have a formal proposal for how to improve its information gathering process by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, BarrierFree gets away with what Rosenworcel and her fellow Commissioner evaluate as little more than a slap on the wrist, even though it’s the maximum penalty allowed by law.

“That limitation means that the forfeiture proposed here cannot be, in my opinion, severe enough to adequately address the harm BarrierFree caused and deter future violations,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a statement.

“This hardly feels like the vigorous enforcement our data-gathering efforts need,” said Rosenworcel. “At a minimum, we should have admonished the carrier before us to send a clear message that failing to file essential data with the agency and filing false data both result in penalty.”

“I worry about the signals this enforcement action sends today. Giving a carrier a pass for failing to file information with the FCC 26 times is not a vigorous response to the deficiencies that plague our broadband data.”

SpaceX raises $1.9 billion in largest funding round to date

SpaceX has raised $1.9 billion in new funding, per a filing with the SEC from Tuesday which was first spotted by Reuters. The company had been reported by Bloomberg to be in the funding process earlier, which pegged the post-money valuation of SpaceX at $46 billion following this raise.

The new funding for the still-private SpaceX hardly comes as a surprise; the Elon Musk -led private launch company has been seeking funding since earlier this year, but Bloomberg reported last week that it increased the size of investment it was seeking owing to strong demand from the investment community.

The round was reportedly oversubscribed, though there isn’t yet much information available about who participated in the round (Bloomberg’s report said Fidelity Investments was among the largest in, but they did not confirm). SpaceX might be better positioned than ever to seek significant resources from investors, given the string of high-profile successes it has recorded recently.

Those include completing the first-ever private human spaceflight mission to take off from U.S. soil. That mission, Demo-2, took off from Florida in May and returned to Earth earlier this month the astronauts it carried after a two-month stint at the International Space Station. Its successful completion means SpaceX can now regularly supply transportation services to and from the ISS — and puts them closer than ever to offering commercial spaceflight services for private tourists, researchers and more.

SpaceX has also made good progress on its Starlink spacecraft development program, with a successful short test flight of the prototype this month, and it won multiple multi-year contracts from NASA and the U.S. government for launch services this year.

It’s currently in the process of a very capital-intensive endeavor, too, which could explain the size of the round: deploying Starlink, the massive satellite constellation that it will own and operate, and that will provide commercial and residential broadband internet services to customers in hard to reach areas once it’s active. Just this morning, SpaceX launched 58 more Starlink satellites, but it will have to launch many more before it can achieve its goal of global coverage.

Watch SpaceX attempt a Falcon 9 rocket re-use record with today’s Starlink launch

SpaceX is set to launch is latest batch of Starlink satellites on Tuesday at 10:31 AM EDT (7:31 AM PDT). This is the 11th of SpaceX Starlink missions so far, and will include 58 of the company’s broadband internet satellites, as well as three of customer Planet’s SkySats spacecraft.

This mission is important as SpaceX continues to work towards launching its Starlink service, which will offer low-latency, high-speed internet connections to customers in areas that have traditionally had little or poor service. But it’s also significant because it involves SpaceX’s most advanced realization of its rocket reusability program to date.

The first stage booster for the Falcon 9 flying today’s mission has flown a total of five times, including once in 2018, twice in 2019 and twice already earlier this year. This will be the sixth launch for the booster – a record for SpaceX, and for reusable rocketry in general – and it will also attempt to land the rocket stage once again using its ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Three of the missions that this Falcon 9 booster flew previously were Starlink flights, which demonstrates how important reusability is for SpaceX in particular when it’s flying its own missions. The shared payload with Planet will somewhat offset its operating costs, but this (and all Starlink launches) are mostly just cost that SpaceX has to absorb for now – until Starlink actually launches a paid service for customers and starts to generate revenue.

Today’s mission also includes reuse of a Falcon 9 fairing (the cone that protects the payload at the top of the rocket) that was used on a previous mission – SpaceX’s fourth Starlink launch. Re-using the fairing is another way that SpaceX can mitigate costs for these missions, and the company has been making progress in its recovery process for this part, which costs around $6 million new for each launch.

The broadcast for the launch will begin at around 15 minutes prior to the actual launch window – so at around 10:16 AM EDT (7:16 AM PDT).

Max Q: SpaceX takes a big hop forward in Starship development

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It wasn’t the busiest week in space tech news — much like a lot of the industry, it feels like we’re entering into a bit of a summer doldrums period, when things slow down considerably. That’s probably especially true right now, with a lot of companies coming off some Herculean efforts and big successes.

This down time will lead to big developments to come, including the first official International Space Station crew mission for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which is scheduled to take place toward the end of September. We might also see Blue Origin’s first sub-orbital launch of the year in the same month.

SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites

Image Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX had a successful launch of a batch of 57 more Stalrink satellites for its broadband internet satellite constellation, which is coming together nicely ahead of the planned beta launch this summer. SpaceX has been gearing up for that, and the details we’ve found reveal that it should be getting underway anytime — though we’re unlikely to hear much about how the actual service works, as participation includes agreeing to an NDA.

SpaceX hops its Starship for a good first flight test

Image Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX has flown a full-scale prototype of its Starship for the first time, hopping a long fuselage (with a simulated weight instead of its eventual dome cap, and temp legs) to a height of around 500 feet. The hop included a flight up and then a controlled descent and landing, all of which appeared to have gone very smoothly. This is the first significant forward progress the Starship development program has had this year, really, after a series of (likely very educational) failures.

Rocket Lab boosts payload capacity

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab has increased the payload capacity of its Electron launch vehicle by a third, bumping the total weight it can carry to orbit up to 660 lbs. That should open up a lot of new potential market for the company, and make it possible for small satellite makers to build additional functionality into the spacecraft they’re putting up with the rocket. The company did this mid-product generation thanks to optimizations of the battery tech that powers some of its thrusters, along with some other tweaks.

Netflix has a new space show premiering September 4

AWAY (L to R) RAY PANTHAKI as RAM ARYA and HILARY SWANK as EMMA GREEN, in episode 109 of AWAY. Cr. DIYAH PERA/NETFLIX © 2020

Netflix’s new show “Away” stars Hilary Swank as an astronaut on a mission to Mars, and seems to focus on the family challenges she encounters between her crucial mission and the people she left behind back on Earth. Looks like more “This Is Us” and less “The Martian,” but it could be great.

Watch SpaceX launch its tenth Starlink mission to build out its satellite internet constellation

SpaceX is getting ready for a third try at launching its tenth Starlink mission, after two prior attempts were scrubbed, first in June and then again in July. Meanwhile, SpaceX has accomplished a lot – including another launch of a GPS satellite, and returning astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth from the International Space Station aboard the Crew Dragon.

This Starlink mission attempt is scheduled for Friday, August 7 at 1:12 AM EDT (10:12 PM PDT on August 6) and will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There’s also a backup opportunity scheduled for Saturday August 8 at 12:50 AM EDT (Augut 7 at 9:50 PM PDT).

The payload for this mission includes, predictably, Starlink satellites – 57 in total that will join the constellation already in low Earth orbit as SpaceX gets ready to begin its beta test, which it says will kick off this summer. Starlink aims to provide low-latency, high-speed broadband to customers who don’t currently have great access to that kind of connectivity, with a beta set to start in parts of the U.S. and Canada this year. The Starlink satellites on this flight are all equipped with a special extendable solar visor to prevent reflections from their radio surfaces from obscuring the night sky from Earth.

This mission also carries two BlackSky satellites, which is one of SpaceX’s customers through launch services provider Spaceflight. It’s the second time that SpaceX has carried another payload alongside its own Starlink satellites on one of these flights, showing its spacefaring rideshare business model in action.

The live feed for the launch will start at around 15 minutes prior to launch time, so at roughly 12:57 AM EDT (9:57 PM PDT).

Amazon gains FCC approval for Kuiper internet satellite constellation and commits $10 billion to the project

Amazon has received approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch and operate a planned constellation of 3,236 internet satellites. That’s the backbone of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, an initiative to create a satellite-based broadband internet service designed to provide high-speed, low latency connections to U.S.-based households that currently don’t have great access to a high-speed connection.

Alongside the key regulatory approval, Amazon also announced that it would be committing over $10 billion in Kuiper, money that it says will generate U.S. jobs and involve not only building and testing satellites for the constellation, but also building out key ground network infrastructure that’s required in order to actually make the connectivity available to consumers.

Amazon’s Kuiper includes plans to provide backhaul service to carriers in addition to direct consumer service. Essentially, that means it’ll offer a way for carriers to offer high-speed LTE and 5G wireless connections to their customers in more areas where they don’t currently have the ground station infrastructure to do so. Amazon says this will be on offer “in the United States and around the world,” so it sounds like the plan is to first address the U.S. market and then expand the Kuiper network globally from there.

Amazon lags behind SpaceX in terms of deployment, since the latter company is actually launching satellites for its Starlink network, and looks ready to enter a beta testing program for the service this summer. The Jeff Bezos -led e-commerce giant has opened a brand new R&D facility in Redmond, Washington dedicated entirely to Kuiper development, however, and partner Blue Origin, Bezos’ space launch company, has been securing significant industry partnerships and could be ready to provide launch services for Kuiper satellites relatively soon.

It’s also unlikely that this emerging market for low Earth orbit satellites will have only one winner; provided these networks can actually live up to their promises in terms of latency, speed and quality connection, there will likely be room for multiple providers to compete on a global scale. Amazon’s $10 billion investment is also another good reason to bet it’ll be able to make this a reality – few others out there have as reliable a funding pipeline for the massive upfront infrastructure costs that come with launching a large satellite constellation.

Rapid Huawei rip-out could cause outages and security risks, warns UK telco

The chief executive of UK incumbent telco BT has warned any government move to require a rapid rip-out of Huawei kit from existing mobile infrastructure could cause network outages for mobile users and generate its own set of security risks.

Huawei has been the focus of concern for Western governments including the US and its allies because of the scale of its role in supplying international networks and next-gen 5G, and its close ties to the Chinese government — leading to fears that relying on its equipment could expose nations to cybersecurity threats and weaken national security.

The UK government is widely expected to announce a policy shift tomorrow, following reports earlier this year that it would reverse course on so called “high risk” vendors and mandate a phase out of use of such kit in 5G networks by 2023.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, BT CEO Philip Jansen said he was not aware of the detail of any new government policy but warned too rapid a removal of Huawei equipment would carry its own risks.

“Security and safety in the short term could be put at risk. This is really critical — because if you’re not able to buy or transact with Huawei that would mean you wouldn’t be able to get software upgrades if you take it to that specificity,” he said.

“Over the next five years we’d expect 15-20 big software upgrades. If you don’t have those you’re running gaps in critical software that could have security implications far bigger than anything we’re talking about in terms of managing to a 35% cap in the access network of a mobile operator.”

“If we get a situation where things need to go very, very fast then you’re in a situation where potentially service for 24M BT Group mobile customers is put into question,” he added, warning that “outages would be possible”.

Back in January the government issued a much delayed policy announcement setting out an approach to what it dubbed “high risk” 5G vendors — detailing a package of restrictions it said were intended to mitigate any risk, including capping their involvement at 35% of the access network. Such vendors would also be entirely barred them from the sensitive “core” of 5G networks. However the UK has faced continued international and domestic opposition to the compromise policy, including from within its own political party.

Wider geopolitical developments — such as additional US sanctions on Huawei and China’s approach to Hong Kong, a former British colony — appear to have worked to shift the political weather in Number 10 Downing Street against allowing even a limited role for Huawei.

Asked about the feasibility of BT removing all Huawei kit, not just equipment used for 5G, Jansen suggested the company would need at least a decade to do so.

“It’s all about timing and balance,” he told the BBC. “If you wanted to have no Huawei in the whole telecoms infrastructure across the whole of the UK I think that’s impossible to do in under ten years.”

If the government policy is limited to only removing such kit from 5G networks Jansen said “ideally” BT would want seven years to carry out the work — though he conceded it “could probably do it in five”.

“The current policy announced in January was to cap the use of Huawei or any high risk vendor to 35% in the access network. We’re working towards that 35% cap by 2023 — which I think we can make although it has implications in terms of roll out costs,” he went on. “If the government makes a policy decision which effectively heralds a change from that announced in January then we just need to understand the potential implications and consequences of that.

“Again we always — at BT and in discussions with GCHQ — we always take the approach that security is absolutely paramount. It’s the number one priority. But we need to make sure that any change of direction doesn’t lead to more risk in the short term. That’s where the detail really matters.”

Jansen fired a further warning shot at Johnson’s government, which has made a major push to accelerate the roll out of fiber wired broadband across the country as part of a pledge to “upgrade” the UK, saying too tight a timeline to remove Huawei kit would jeopardize this “build out for the future”. Instead, he urged that “common sense” prevail.

“There is huge opportunity for the economy, for the country and for all of us from 5G and from full fiber to the home and if you accelerate the rip out obviously you’re not building either so we’ve got to understand all those implications and try and steer a course and find the right balance to managing this complicated issue.

“It’s really important that we very carefully weigh up all the different considerations and find the right way through this — depending on what the policy is and what’s driving the policy. BT will obviously and is talking directly with all parts of government, [the National] Cyber Security Center, GCHQ, to make sure that everybody understands all the information and a sensible decision is made. I’m confident that in the end common sense will prevail and we will head down the right direction.”

Asked whether it agrees there are security risks attached to an accelerated removal of Huawei kit, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre declined to comment. But a spokesperson for the NCSC pointed us to an earlier statement in which it said: “The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance. Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the U.K.’s networks.”

We’ve also reached out to DCMS for comment.

The coronavirus pandemic is expanding California’s digital divide

If every California student without an adequate internet connection got together and formed a state, it would contain more residents than Idaho or Hawaii.

A total of 1,529,000 K-12 students in California don’t have the connectivity required for adequate distance learning.

Analysis from Common Sense Media also revealed that students lacking adequate connection commonly lack an adequate device as well. The homework gap that separates those with strong connections from those on the wrong side of the digital divide will become a homework chasm without drastic and immediate intervention.

To raise awareness of the enormity and immediacy of the digital divide, I started No One Left Offline (NOLO) in San Francisco. It’s an all-volunteer nonprofit that’s creating a coalition of Bay Area organizations focused on giving students, seniors and individuals with disabilities access to high-speed, affordable Internet.

During the week of July 27, the NOLO coalition will launch the Bridge the Divide campaign to raise $50,000 in funds that will be used to directly cover broadband bills for families on the edge of the digital divide.

At this point in our response to COVID-19, emergency measures have only stopped the homework gap from growing rather than actually shrinking it. That’s precisely why we need a new form of addressing students’ lack of adequate internet and devices. The digital “haves” should embrace directly covering the broadband bills and upgrades required by the “have nots.” This form of direct giving is both the most effective and efficient means of giving every student high-speed internet and a device to make the most of that connection.

But too few people are aware of just how dire life can be on the wrong side of the digital divide. That’s why I’m hoping you — as a fellow member of the digital “haves” — will join me in taking a day off(line) on July 17. I’m convinced that it will take a day (if not more) in the digital dark for more Americans to recognize just how difficult it is to thrive, let alone survive, without stable internet, a device and a sufficient level of digital literacy.

The increased attention to the digital divide generated by this day off(line) will spur a more collective and significant response to stopping the formation of a homework chasm.

Current efforts to close the homework gap have at once been laudable and limited. For example, internet service providers (ISPs) deserve praise for taking a voluntary pledge to limit fees, forgive fines and remove data caps. But that pledge expired at the end of June, months before school starts and in the middle of an expanding economic calamity.

It’s true that many ISPs are still going to extraordinary lengths to help those in need — look no further than Verizon donating phones to Miracle Messages to help individuals experiencing homelessness connect with loved ones. However, even these extraordinary measures will not fully make up for the fact that hundreds of thousands of Californians are experiencing greater financial insecurity than ever before. They want and require a long-term solution to their digital needs — not just voluntary pledges that end in the middle of a pandemic.

In the same way, many school districts in the Bay Area have rapidly loaned hotspots and devices to students and families in need. In fact, even before COVID-19, the Oakland Unified School District and the 1Million Project were providing hotspots to students in need. These sorts of interventions, though, do not afford students on the wrong side of the homework gap the same opportunity to fully develop their digital literacy as those that have devices to call their own and internet connections sufficient to do more than just homework.

Every student deserves a device to call their own and a connection that allows them to become experts in safely and smoothly navigating the internet.

Direct giving is the solution. Financially secure individuals across the Bay Area can and should “sponsor” internet plans and devices for families in need. By sponsoring a family’s high-speed internet plan for a year or more, donors will provide students and parents alike with the security they need to focus on all of the other challenges associated with life in a pandemic. What’s more, sponsored devices would come without strings attached or “used” labels.

Students would have a fully equipped laptop to call their own as well as one that didn’t lack key functionalities, which is common among donated devices.

Because access to the internet is a human right, the government should be solving the homework gap. So far, it hasn’t been up to the task. So, in the interim, we’ll need a private sector solution. The good news is that we collectively seem up for the task. According to Fidelity, most charitable donors plan to maintain or increase their giving this year.

Consider that even 46% of millennials plan to increase their philanthropy. Unfortunately, one inhibitor to giving is the fact that “many donors don’t feel that they have the information they need to effectively support efforts” to address the ramifications of COVID-19.

That’s where NOLO and other digital inclusion coalitions step in. We’re sounding the bell: The public sector isn’t closing the homework gap; it’s on us to make sure kids have the connections and devices they need to thrive. NOLO is also providing the means to act on this information — during its Bridge the Divide campaign, donors will have a chance to sponsor broadband bills for community members served by organizations across the Bay Area including the SF Tech Council, BMAGIC and the Mission Merchants Association.

Our collective assignment is making the homework gap a priority. Our due date is nearing. The first task is taking a day off(line) on July 17. The next is donating to the Bridge the Divide campaign during the week of the 27th.

Let’s get to work.