In the latest twist in the satellite industry, Boeing has decided to forfeit its license for a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation, a project that would’ve competed with SpaceX’s Starlink network.
Boeing’s plans to build a broadband internet constellation are officially over. At least for now. On Monday, Boeing formally surrendered its license to build the system and paid the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a $2.2 million forfeiture penalty, as reported in Aerospace Daily, a subsidiary of Aviation Week. The FCC officially revoked Boeing’s license on October 12, a permit that had originally been granted to the company in November 2021.
“Boeing is committed to responsible spectrum allocation and space usage,” Michelle Parker, vice president of Boeing Space Mission Systems, explained in an emailed statement. “As part of this commitment, we followed all regulatory requirements as we arrived at strategic business decisions regarding our spectrum allocation.”
Boeing is optimistic about V-band’s commercial potential given the growing global need for satellite internet, Parker explained. She added that the company is consistently reviewing its spectrum use to meet business and regulatory needs, but is “prioritizing more immediate growth steps at this time.”
In reference to Boeing’s decision, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to X on Tuesday to say, “Competing with SpaceX is tough.” The billionaire’s Starlink remains the dominant player in this realm, with over 4,900 operational units currently in low Earth orbit, according to Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell. Musk is clearly gloating, but there’s some truth in his pithy statement; SpaceX has the distinct advantage of being able to deliver its Starlink satellites to space at cost, and not having to source a launch provider.
Boeing had initially shown great interest in carving out its own footprint in the satellite constellation domain. Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems, discussed the company’s intentions during a 2021 interview with Aerospace Daily, expressing Boeing’s desire to establish partnerships for an NGSO (Non-Geostationary Satellite Orbit) constellation. Reid clarified that Boeing’s approach would differ from SpaceX’s Starlink, focusing more on business-to-business arrangements, similar to the model adopted by OneWeb, rather than Starlink’s direct-to-consumer model. He added that, while Boeing was not directly competing with Starlink, its customers would be.
Boeing launched its Varuna prototype satellite in September 2022 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission, marking a key first step in its satellite constellation development. This mission was meant to test the technologies intended for the full constellation, ensuring their functionality in space. A Sherpa-LTC 2 transfer vehicle hosts Boeing’s Varuna-TDM (Varuna Technology Demonstration Mission) payload, and it remains operational in orbit.
“Our V-Band test mission provided valuable data and learning. For now, we are not immediately pursuing a V-Band constellation,” said Parker. “We will continue to invest in opportunities that push what’s possible for connectivity in space.”
Related article: What’s the Difference Between SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb?
The FCC had originally granted Boeing a license to operate a 147-satellite V-band constellation, with Boeing later requesting an expansion to more than 5,000 satellites. The FCC’s stringent requirements mandated that Boeing deploy half of its constellation by November 2027 (i.e. six years after issuing the license). According to Aerospace Daily, Boeing’s request to relax these deployment rules was denied by the FCC, which aims to prevent spectrum squatting (a practice in which companies hold a license for spectrum usage without actively utilizing it, potentially hindering other companies from accessing valuable communication frequencies). It’s not clear if the 50% rule contributed to Boeing’s decision to drop the project. Boeing did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for clarification on this matter.
Boeing has stepped back from its megaconstellation ambitions, while SpaceX continues to solidify its position as the primary player. But this doesn’t close the door for other potential rivals to enter into the satellite internet fray. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is actively making strides, highlighted by the recent successful launch of two prototype satellites. Other noteworthy contenders vying for a piece of the satellite internet market include the aforementioned OneWeb, Telesat, and Astra.
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