So far the company has launched nearly 1,000 satellites as part of its Starlink constellation and has begun a pilot program in the northern United States and southern Canada it calls “Better Than Nothing.”
The funding gives SpaceX an even bigger lead over its competitors in the race to build the Internet in space. Recently, OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy and appointed a new CEO. Jeff Bezos’s Amazon also intends to flood Earth’s orbit with its own satellites in a project it calls Kuiper that it has said would bring broadband to “unserved and underserved communities around the world.” (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In a statement, Pai said the awards would bring “welcome news to millions of unconnected rural Americans who for too long have been on the wrong side of the digital divide. They now stand to gain access to high-speed, high-quality broadband service.” The winning bidders must provide financial statements, coverage maps and certify that their network is capable of delivering “to at least 95% of the required number of locations in each relevant state,” the FCC said.
The announcement comes as Democrats and President-elect Biden are pushing to dramatically increase funding for Internet spending next year, helping to connect families and businesses that have been especially hurt during the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has endorsed a relief bill that passed the House, which included $4 billion for low-income Americans struggling to access the Internet for work or school.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who led a broadband task force, has said he expected the issue to be one of the top priorities for the incoming administration and that Congress would act.
“Broadband in this century must be treated as electricity was in the 20th century,” he said.
SpaceX finished near the top with a massive infusion of cash that could provide the financial underpinning its Starlink project needs. In the past, several companies tried and failed. Teledesic, a company founded by Bill Gates in the mid-1990s, collapsed after costs soared. Attempts by Iridium and Globalstar ended up in bankruptcy.
SpaceX has the advantage that it can launch its own satellites. And by using reusable rockets, the cost has come down dramatically.
Its most recent launch of 60 Starlink satellites last month, for example, was the seventh time that particular Falcon 9 rocket had been used, a record.
Still, Musk has said he knows the difficulty of what he is trying to achieve, and in a call with reporters last year he said: “I do believe we will be successful, but it is far from a sure thing.”
Tony Romm contributed to this report.