SpaceX is the world’s largest satellite operator with thousands of Starlink internet nodes in its orbital constellation, and you can add 150 more to the tally. SpaceX has informed regulators that it’s buying a satellite internet startup called Swarm. This firm focuses on so-called “nano satellites” for IoT applications, but the FCC filings don’t say why SpaceX wants to buy the company.
In its notice to the FCC, SpaceX says that the Swarm acquisition will help it expand coverage. “The Proposed Transaction will serve the public interest by strengthening the combined companies’ ability to provide innovative satellite services that reach unserved and underserved parts of the world,” SpaceX wrote. The document doesn’t get into the specifics of Swarm’s technology, which is only superficially similar to Starlink.
Starlink is intended as a replacement for terrestrial wireline internet, which is often expensive or unavailable in remote areas. Before Starlink, satellite internet was universally sluggish and had terrible latency, but Elon Musk’s network is already hitting impressive speeds. Recent Ookla data shows Starlink’s average speed is approaching 100 Mbps. Meanwhile, Swarm is a “store-and-forward” system designed to relay small packets of data to IoT devices in remote areas like farms, oil platforms, and energy grids. The satellites can store up to 4,000 “messages,” beaming them to connected devices when they pass overhead.
Swarm’s satellites are tiny, weighing in at just 0.8 pounds (360 grams), and are about the size of a desktop computer hard drive. Each IoT device connected to Swarm needs a $119 transceiver or a $499 dish terminal. The company charges a $5 monthly fee per device — that’s cheaper than conventional internet service because Swarm is only suitable for this one use case.
The FCC filing says SpaceX and Swarm entered into an agreement on July 16, but it’s up to the FCC to approve the sale and transfer Swarm’s license to SpaceX. There’s no reason to expect this will be a tough sell, but we don’t know what SpaceX has in mind for the satellite startup’s current IP. It may only want Swarm for its manufacturing technology, or it could be looking to use Swarm-like nano satellites to beef up Starlink’s network. Anything could happen — Starlink is still in beta, and SpaceX plans to launch thousands of more satellites in the coming years.
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