SpaceX Plans Starlink Telephone Service, Emergency Backup, and Low Revenue Entry


Enlarge /. A stack of 60 Starlink satellites was launched in 2019.

A new SpaceX file outlines plans for Starlink to offer phone services, emergency backups for voice calls, and cheaper plans for low-income people through the government's Lifeline program.

The details are set out in Starlink's petition to the Federal Communications Commission for Designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Provider (ETC) under the Communications Act. SpaceX said it needs this legal label in some states that have received government funding to use broadband in unsupervised areas. The ETC designation is also required to qualify for reimbursement from the FCC's Lifeline program when offering discounts on telecommunications services to low-income individuals.

Starlink is in beta and costs $ 99 per month plus a one-time fee of $ 499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router. As we discovered yesterday, the SpaceX file also states that Starlink now has over 10,000 users in the US and abroad. SpaceX should have capacity for several million customers in the US – the company has permission to provision up to 1 million user terminals (i.e. satellite dishes) and is requesting FCC permission to increase the maximum provisioning level to 5 million user terminals.

VoIP plans

While the Starlink beta includes broadband only, SpaceX is expected to sell VoIP services that include "(a) voice access to the public switched telephone network (" PSTN ") or its functional equivalent; (b) minutes of use for local area networks include services provided to end users provided at no additional cost; (c) access to emergency services; and (d) fee-limiting services for qualified, low-income consumers. "

Voice services are "sold on their own at rates comparable to urban rates," SpaceX said. The plan is still ongoing, but SpaceX is currently exploring the use of a "White Label Managed Service Provider (MSP) voice platform".


"Under this baseline, Starlink Services would provide telephony services that connect consumers to their MSP's platform using the network capacity available to consumers through their customers' devices on site," the file said. "Consumers have the option of using a traditional third-party phone plugged into a standards-compliant Session Initiation Protocol analog terminal adapter or a native IP phone chosen from a list of certified models."

SpaceX said it is looking at other phone service options as well:

Starlink Services continues to consider integrating alternative standalone voice applications into the Starlink network, including other third party vendors, or developing its own proprietary solution. The company may use such approaches if further testing shows that alternative solutions would provide the end customer with a superior experience, or if Starlink Services determines that the end user would benefit from the existence of multiple language solutions to introduce competition and redundancy into the supply chain.

Emergency backup

Like other VoIP providers, Starlink would sell a 24-hour battery backup to customers who requested it. "At the user level, Starlink Services offers a 24-hour battery backup option for user devices that can be used to make phone calls in the event of a power failure," said SpaceX.

The 24-hour backup offer would meet an FCC rule that was passed in 2015 under then-chairman Tom Wheeler. Although the backup option described in the SpaceX file is for phone service, we saw from the Starlink beta that the user terminal can provide broadband with a portable power supply.

SpaceX's filing also included detailed network-level backup and redundancy plans:

Starlink Services have sufficient emergency power supply to remain functional in emergency situations without an external power source, can divert traffic around damaged facilities and manage traffic peaks due to emergency situations … At the system level Starlink Services builds redundancy into the network. For example, each user has several satellites in view with which he can communicate. In addition, each satellite has multiple gateway locations with which it can communicate. The Starlink traffic routing system ensures that bandwidth is made available to each user before additional throughput is allocated to users who need more bandwidth. This gives the Starlink network robustness in emergencies that require high throughput.


SpaceX didn't provide many details on its Lifeline plans other than the fact that it intends to offer them.


"Starlink Services does not currently have Lifeline customers as only airlines designated as ETC can participate in the Lifeline program," the company said. Once ETC has been awarded, SpaceX will "make Lifeline available to qualified, low-income consumers and publicize the availability of Lifeline services in a manner that is appropriate to reach those likely to qualify for the service. "

Lifeline currently offers a monthly grant of $ 9.25 per household for low-income households for broadband or a monthly grant of $ 5.25 per household for telephone services. Based on Starlink's beta price of $ 99 per month, the subsidies wouldn't be enough to make this plan affordable for low-income consumers. Therefore, we expect SpaceX to offer other, more affordable plans to customers meeting the low income requirements. At Lifeline, each vendor applies for reimbursement from the fund after providing services to eligible consumers.

Starlink is intended to be a common carrier service

According to the SpaceX filing, Starlink broadband and phone will be offered as common carrier services. "For the purposes of this designation (ETC), Starlink Services will offer the public broadband Internet access and an independent voice service on the basis of a common network operator in all service areas," said the filing.

Whether broadband should be regulated as a common carrier service was a partisan battle. The Obama-era FCC classified ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act as joint carriers to enforce the rules for net neutrality, and the Trump-era FCC reversed that classification. Broadband lobby groups bitterly rejected the Title II classification.

"The FCC enables carriers to offer broadband on a shared carrier basis if they so choose," Harold Feld, longtime telecommunications attorney and senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.

SpaceX's adoption of the common carrier classification as part of its plan to be an ETC and accept government funding doesn't necessarily mean much. However, Feld said, "It suggests that (SpaceX) is unlikely to fight Title II classification. Ideally, they could even support Title II. However, this at least shows that they don't believe the joint transport is by Title II is a kind. " of a terrible burden that will prevent them from offering services. "


Steven Gregory