SpaceX, the Elon Musk-founded company that last week launched its Falcon Heavy rocket — and a Tesla into space — came a step closer to deploying satellites that would deliver broadband Internet across the U.S.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday began circulating a proposal to fellow commissioners recommending approval of SpaceX's application for a satellite-delivered Internet service.
SpaceX plans to launch more than 4,420 small satellites into low orbit around the Earth beginning next year, with full deployment expected by 2024, the company said in May 2017 testimony to the U.S. Senate. That low-orbit position could deliver broadband speeds equal to current speeds from traditional Net providers, the company says.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch the first satellites on Sunday as part of the Paz mission, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Solutions such as SpaceX's could help bridge the digital divide in the U.S., Pai says.
“Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach," he said in a statement Wednesday. "And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available."
If adopted, Pai said it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.
There are barriers to making broadband available in some rural areas. Overall, 73% of Americans say they have a broadband connection at home, but only two-thirds (63%) of rural Americans do, according to a May 2017 Pew Research Center survey.
SpaceX hopes to have more than 40 million subscribers to its satellite broadband service and bring in more than $30 billion in revenue by 2025, according to The Wall Street Journal, which obtained internal company documents last year.
That revenue is meant to help fund company founder Musk's vision of sending missions to and inhabiting Mars.
Pai's proposal requires a vote of the commissioners and it's likely he will get a thumbs-up, as there are two other Republicans on the commission. “
The FCC has approved applications by other companies including OneWeb Satellites, which is building a satellite factory at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park in Florida. A joint project with Airbus, OneWeb is currently building satellites in France and will use Russian Soyuz rockets to launch some of its satellites.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.