FCC Skeptical SpaceX Can Deliver Low Latency Broadband

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If SpaceX and other satcos are rejected from the low-latency category, they will be at a disadvantage in the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The reverse auction, set to begin October 29, will distribute $16 billion yearly, over ten years. The auction will give internet service providers (ISPs) funding to deploy broadband in census blocks where no provider offers home-internet speeds of at least 25 mbps downstream and 3 mbps upstream.

The FCC will prioritize low-latency networks when awarding funding, so SpaceX and other low-earth orbit providers could come up short against terrestrial networks, reports Ars Technica. SpaceX has said the FCC’s skepticism is unwarranted, telling the agency its Starlink broadband system “easily clears the commission’s 100 [milliseconds] threshold for low-latency services, even including its ‘processing time’ during unrealistic worst-case scenarios.” 

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the company is aiming for latency below 20ms. That’s similar to cable internet and low enough to support competitive online gaming. SpaceX can make its case in detail to the agency during the application stage.  

Timing is part of the issue for SpaceX. The company launched some 480 satellites but isn’t offering commercial service yet, and companies must submit applications for the auction by July 15. Having a commercial service available would make it easier for SpaceX to convince the FCC that its service is low-latency, according to the account.

Getting placed in the high-latency category wouldn’t shut out SpaceX and other LEO providers completely, but it would likely reduce the amount of funding they receive. 

Separately, LEO satellite providers cannot apply as gigabit providers in the FCC auction, even though DSL and fixed-wireless ISPs will be given a chance to demonstrate they can provide gigabit speeds. While gigabit speeds “are not commercially available on a widespread basis using these technologies, service providers using these technologies have increasingly reported deploying networks capable” of providing them, the FCC said in the order that came out last week.

DSL and fixed-wireless providers will face a high bar in qualifying for the gigabit category: Fixed-wireless providers will have to account for “distance limitations, spectrum bands attributes, channel bandwidths requirements, backhaul and medium haul requirements, tower siting requirements, capacity constraints, required upstream speeds, required minimum monthly usage allowances, and other issues raised in the record,” the FCC said. Ultimately, the FCC said it expects that “relatively few fixed wireless and DSL technologies will be able to meet the short-form requirements for bidding in the Gigabit performance tier.”

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