Technology

SpaceX Starlink Overtakes 10,000 Customers and Fights FCC Funding

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Enlarge /. A SpaceX Starlink user terminal / satellite dish.

Small ISP lobby groups are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether SpaceX can deliver on its broadband promises and consider blocking the satellite provider's broadband funding for rural areas. According to SpaceX, the Starlink beta will now offer 10,000 users high-speed broadband.

SpaceX was one of the biggest winners from the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), winning $ 885.51 million over 10 years to bring Starlink broadband to 642,925 homes and businesses in 35 states. In total, the reverse auction funded 180 companies nationwide with $ 9.2 billion ($ 920 million per year) to expand networks to 5.2 million homes and businesses currently lacking access to modern broadband speeds.

Funding winners, however, had until January 29 to submit "long term applications" to "provide additional information about skills, funding and the network they would like to use to meet their commitments". The FCC will review these applications to determine if funding should be withdrawn.

Electrical cooperatives that provide broadband have raised concerns about SpaceX's Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite technology and wireless fixed line services that enable Internet access from towers on the ground to antennas in customers' homes. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) have submitted a white paper to the FCC claiming that RDOF prices "threaten the broadband hopes of rural America".

Starlink dismissed as a "scientific experiment"

NRECA's CEO has been openly against funding SpaceX, as stated in a Bloomberg article today:

SpaceX orbiting broadband "is an entirely unproven technology," said Jim Matheson, chairman of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, whose members vied for funding. "Why use this money for a science experiment?"

Electrical co-operatives that offer broadband have won a combined $ 1.6 billion from the FCC auction to serve 900,000 locations in 31 states, according to NRECA. These included 180 cooperatives that "competed as part of five consortia totaling approximately $ 1.5 billion" and "five individual electrical cooperatives (which) won a total of $ 59.4 million".

All of these electrical cooperatives bid at the gigabit level of the FCC, as a search on the FCC system shows. NRECA said "many" of the electrical cooperatives are using fiber optic technology to achieve these speeds and that they pushed for high standards at the FCC auction "to ensure that cooperatives were providing superior service to other types of ISPs Can compete slower or more spotty service in rural areas. "

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Matheson told the FCC on a file that many of the LEO satellite and landline awards went to census pads "located in the electrical cooperative services area."

SpaceX has good early results and 10,000 users

SpaceX is committed to providing services at the FCC Above Baseline, which requires download speeds of 100Mbps, upload speeds of 20Mbps, and a data cap of at least 2TB per month. Based on early reports from SpaceX Starlink beta testers, it appears that the service can deliver broadband at high speeds and latency better than the FCC's 100ms standard. SpaceX continues to launch satellites and has announced to beta testers that they should expect steady improvements in speed, latency, and availability over the coming months. Before applying for funding, SpaceX first had to overcome the FCC's "serious doubts" as to whether it could deliver the required latencies.

"Starlink's performance is neither theoretical nor experimental," SpaceX said yesterday in an unrelated FCC filing. "The service has over 10,000 users in the US and abroad today. While its performance is accelerating rapidly in real time as part of its public beta program, the Starlink network has already successfully demonstrated that it surpasses the Commission's above baseline can perform low-latency performance levels. "

Starlink already offers download speeds of 100 Mbit / s and upload speeds of 20 Mbit / s and provides latencies at or below 31 ms on 95 percent of the "network round-trip latency measurements," according to the company.

Starlink's beta status raises questions

However, groups opposed to SpaceX's FCC funding said the technology has not been proven because it is not generally available. "Any application that is unlikely to deliver promised speeds to all locations should be disqualified under FCC rules," states the NRECA / NRTC white paper.

LEO satellite service "is currently in beta testing and has limited commercial availability in extremely limited areas. Questions remain. Currently, LEO-based broadband lacks the" proven ability to run at certain speed and latency combinations "as requested by the Commission reasonable, "wrote the groups. "Allocating offers to experimental and undetected LEO satellite services is a direct contradiction" to the FCC requirements. (SpaceX was the only LEO satellite company to get funding.)

The white paper questioned whether LEO satellites "can consistently deliver high levels of speed with thousands of subscribers signing up for the service". They suggested that funding isn't even needed from SpaceX, and also said that "satellite providers eventually plan to provide services to areas regardless of whether they are subsidized for it".

We contacted SpaceX today regarding the group submission and will update this article when we receive a response.

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Fixed wireless challenges

Regarding fixed WiFi, the groups argued that gigabit speeds can be deployed, but only under the right conditions. NRTC said its experience with rural utilities "shows that the conditions for this speed are largely unsatisfactory in rural America for a number of reasons."

Fixed wireless challenges "include the need for significant spectral bandwidth at lower frequencies for propagation, the availability of vertical assets for a higher frequency spectrum, near or absolute line of sight from the transmitter to the antenna, and significant use of fiber optic cables for backhaul purposes." They said . "Many of the areas in which fixed wireless bidders have been supported to provide gigabit service would either not meet these requirements or would be prohibitively expensive."

The FCC rural broadband funding is paid for by Americans through phone bill charges.

The new FCC chairman had doubts about the auction

ISP lobby groups aren't the only ones voicing concerns about SpaceX funding. Consumer protection group Free Press examined the auction results and found that SpaceX was receiving funding in surprising locations like the Jersey City Target Store. Census pads "with luxury hotels" in Chicago; "Empty Parking lots, lawns, and freeway medians" near Washington, DC; a "parking garage in downtown Miami Beach, two blocks from the beach, surrounded by multiple gigabit service companies"; and a street in San Francisco "that borders the southern edge of Golden Gate Park". SpaceX "seems to have obeyed the rules. But the FCC rules created a broken system," the group said.

It is not clear whether the FCC is likely to reverse some or all of the funding from SpaceX or other companies. FCC Acting Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel criticized then Chairman Ajit Pai for closing the auction without waiting for the FCC to collect more accurate broadband data.

"We need cards before money and data before deployment," said Rosenworcel in January 2020 when the decision was made. "With today's decision, we're making the vast majority of Universal Service Funds – $ 16 billion! – available for the next decade without doing anything to improve our maps, accurately measure the service, or resolve the data disaster. that we have today about the status of the service. That is, if your home is marked as serviced on the FCC maps today and it is not, you will be alone for the next decade. "(The FCC awarded in the first phase of the fund $ 9.2 billion instead of the maximum of $ 16 billion. In the as yet unplanned second phase, $ 11.2 billion may be available.)

Given Rosenworcel's view, it wouldn't be surprising if the first phase of the RDOF saw some changes, be it for funding SpaceX or someone else's. The FCC recently heard from Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who opposed funding from Frontier Communications because the company had historically failed to meet broadband deployment requirements. And just before Pai stepped down in January, a non-partisan group of 157 members of Congress sent a letter calling on the FCC to ensure that every ISP funded "has the technical, financial, managerial, operational skills, capabilities and resources to to deliver the services that they are committed to to every American they choose to serve, regardless of the technology they use. "

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Steven Gregory