February 16, 2021—While SpaceX touts Starlink as the answer to the world’s dearth of broadband coverage, experts are not convinced that it will be able to meet increasing demand.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX began launching a constellation of small satellites early in 2018 with the goal of providing affordable satellite broadband coverage to areas around the globe that historically lacked any access to the internet. On February 16, 2021, Space X launched its 19th mission adding to the hundreds of satellites in low orbit.
Cartesian, a U.S.-based technology consulting firm, recently published its final report as part of its “Starlink RDOF Assessment.” According to its findings, even under generous circumstances, Starlink would be unable to provide reliable internet coverage to its consumers.
To be considered for the RDOF bidding process, a company must commit to providing 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload speed to consumers.
Michael Dargue, vice president of Cartesian, wanted to be clear that the assessment was based on publicly available information and that the specific technical abilities of the satellites are largely unknown. Dargue stated that the assessment made several assumptions. He spoke at a Tuesday webinar.
First, he stated that the assessment assumed that the satellites could transfer 20 gigabits per second and that each satellite had an effective range of 300,000 square miles. Additionally, he stated that the assessment assumed that the maximum latitude of center of satellite coverage area was 53 degrees. Dargue added that natural features such as mountains and forests were not accounted for in the assessment.
Dargue stated that with these assumptions made, the assessment indicated that 56-57 percent of consumers reliant on Starlink would experience degradations in their broadband service during peak hours (between 6PM and 12AM). Cartesian modeled two scenarios with megabits per second as the independent variable and percent of subscribers that received uncompromised service as the dependent variable.
The first model assumed that during peak hours users were using 20.8 megabits per second, and the second model assumed that peak hour users were using 15.3 megabits per second. These models both found that more than half of users would experience degradation in their service.
Dargue said that because SpaceX plans to use Starlink for military, commercial, and other non-fixed broadband sources (such as “smart” cars), Starlink’s ability to provide sufficient broadband coverage would be even further diminished. The Cartesian assessment estimated that if 50 percent of Starlink’s satellite capacity is dedicated to non-RDOF network users, 95-92 percent of RDOF users would receive insufficient coverage.
He stated that these issues will only become worse as the number of users and their broadband dependent devices increase, and that there would be a significant capacity shortfall by 2028. Dargue added that because SpaceX’s future business plans for Starlink are always changing the FCC may find it difficult to determine if SpaceX is complying with its contractual obligations.
Late last year, it was announced that SpaceX had secured a sizeable contract with the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. SpaceX’s contract was worth $885.5 million of a total of $9.2 billion that was made available to the fund.
SpaceX’s Starlink will be responsible for providing 640,000 locations with broadband coverage, mostly on the East Coast and northwestern U.S. Almost 88.3% of the locations Starlink will be covering are considered rural, with its five largest regions being Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Starlink will work by assembling its planned fleet of approximately 12,000 satellites into an overlapping tessellation of coverage to ensure that no region that is ought to be covered is missed.
LEO Satellite Technology Should Be in All Schools, Gigabit Libraries Network Says
Satellites, at the very least, can act as backup connections, webinar heard.
October 21, 2021 – Low earth orbit satellites, which are expected to help connect a portion of people who live in remote regions of the country, should be available to all libraries – even if it’s just for redundancy, the director of Gigabit Libraries Network said Thursday.
Don Means, the director of the organization that has a deal with SpaceX’s Starlink beta service to connect a “handful” of libraries, said the technology can be used as backup in the event of a disaster.
“We think this should be in every library, even if it’s a place that has a connection – this would be very valuable as a backup because consider any kind of lights out scenario in a community,” Means said. “With this system, it bypasses the local infrastructure, and if you have a power source and you have a [satellite] dish, you’re connected.”
Earlier this month, Means said libraries will need various ways to stay connected and provide access to public Wi-Fi. While the “cheapest, most equitable, most economical way to connect every community with next generation broadband is to run fiber to all of the 17,000 libraries,” Means said previously, other solutions will need to be considered where geography doesn’t allow for a direct fiber connection.
The LEO constellation is unique compared to other kinds of satellites because it hovers closer to earth, theoretically meaning it provides better connectivity and lower latency, or the time it takes for the devices to communicate with the network.
The House is waiting to vote on an infrastructure bill that will pour billions into broadband. People have debated what kinds of technology the money should go toward, with some arguing for hard wiring and others saying wireless technologies have a space at the table.
Despite having a deal with Starlink, Means said he encourages LEO satellite technology in general and not just Starlink in particular.
“We’re not advocates or agents for Starlink,” Means said, “it’s just they’re the first ones out there with this technology. There are others coming…this is a new thing, a burgeoning thing.”
Starlink said this summer it had shipped 100,000 terminals to customers.
Satellite Operators and Broadband Entrants Vie for Primacy as FCC Debates the 12 GigaHertz Band
Will the 12 GHz band be opened for 5G uses or remain exclusively for satellite services?
July 13, 2021—There is a battle raging in the heart of the atmosphere. And no, it’s not the current heatwave. It’s the wireless radio frequencies known as the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) spectrum.
Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, “Spectrum for 5G, LEOs and the Future of the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) Band,” on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.
The 12GHz band is the name commonly used to identify a 500 megahertz swath of frequencies that stretch across the lower end of the so-called K band, between 12.2 GHz and 12.7 GHz.
The band has primarily been used for downlink satellite communications—most notably by the International Space Station, SpaceX, and Dish. But now the band has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over 5G services versus satellite technologies.
Proponents of spectrum sharing believe now is the time to open 12 GHz up for more intensive broadband uses. But some satellite services are very much opposed. And the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering the arguments.
Spectrum sharing: Will it also work with satellite services?
Spectrum policy primarily uses two methods of allocating bandwidth. A band can either be designated for shared use or exclusive use.
Some entities would like to see the 12 GHz band opened up to greater shared uses. Others want it limited for exclusive use.
Bands can also either be licensed or unlicensed, but the terms are not mutually exclusive. Communications companies are often opposed to shared uses. These companies prefer to utilize an exclusive rights model, in which they approach the airwaves from the perspective of a property owner with complete control over their domain.
One notable exception to this is Dish Wireless.
Dish’s direct broadcast satellite service has been the primary incumbent in the 12 GHz band for years. Representatives from Dish have stated that they welcome the improved competition because they believe sharing the 12GHz band would yield as companies continue to build-out their 5G networks.
A battle of the billionaires
It’s also important to frame Dish’s argument in a broader context. Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are embroiled in a war to establish primacy of the satellite internet market. SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and Virgin’s Virgin Orbit are all trying to carve out their own corner of the market for satellite internet.
The 12 GHz band represents important real estate which they could leverage to improve their coverage.
In a response to Dish’s comments before the FCC, SpaceX argued on July 7 that Dish’s shared use model would interfere with incumbent satellite services—an assertion that Dish has pushed back against in the past.
SpaceX accused Dish of amassing “the world’s largest storehouse of unused spectrum” and accused them of only being capable of delivering empty promised. The reply also stated that Dish is attempting to kick operation next-generation satellites out of the 12GHz band—which would not be a precondition for spectrum sharing.
OneWeb and RS Access also weigh in
“The loudest proponents for introducing terrestrial mobile into the 12 GHz band are a handful of parties whose business plans have proved fruitless for nearly two decades, led by two who now see an opportunity for a financial windfall,” said Eric Graham, director of government and regulatory engagement for OneWeb, a satellite broaband provider, referring to Dish and RS Access.
“Arguments in support of introducing a terrestrial mobile allocation into a spectrum band with comparatively poor terrestrial propagation characteristics ignore the fact that such an allocation would only serve consumers who currently have many terrestrial mobile options in the areas where they live, work, and play,” Graham said.
But In a March 2021 ex parte filing with the FCC, RS Access slammed some of the satellite companies, including SpaceX, stating that the Musk’s company only seeks “maximal flexibility for itself, no matter the encumbrances or detriments to other operators.”
The filing also pointed out that the 500 megahertz is only worth three percent of SpaceX’s more than 15 gigahertz of exclusive use. RS Access asserted that improving flexibility “is not a zero-sum choice between satellite and terrestrial operations.” It pointed out that there are few other options for viable mid-band spectrum for license flexible use, and that new innovations are making shared use more efficient.
Dueling series of facts and technical data
Back in December of 2020, Chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies Inc. Michael Dell appealed to FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington to advocate for the use of open radio access networks in domestic 5G networks, their utility in bridging the digital divide, and the opening of the 12 GHz band for 5G use.
The decision to open the 12 GHz band may well come down to technical data: Whether Dish and its allies can provide data that will convince the FCC that opening the band to greater sharing will not interfere with incumbent usage.
For SpaceX and other entities that would prefer to see it remain closed, they will likely have to demonstrate how their services will be irredeemably impacted by other carriers operating within the band.
Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, “Spectrum for 5G, LEOs and the Future of the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) Band,” on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Panelists include Eric Graham of OneWeb, V. Noah Campbell of RS Access and Jeffrey Blum of DISH. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.
Gary Bolton: Satellite’s Polite Conceit of Unserved/Underserved
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
SpaceX Starlink is the latest satellite broadband project to invoke the needs of unserved and underserved consumers to justify Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) licensing. The polite fiction spun by it and other satellite companies, nurtured by today’s short-form news cycle, is that such networks will deliver broadband services to anyone who needs them.
However, a less liberal appraisal recognizes these multi-billion dollar capital-intensive efforts are dependent upon business and government customers for economic survival and will deliver services only to those who can best afford them.
The marketing conceit of “broadband for all” is not new and dates back more than a decade to the launch of the O3b mPower satellite constellation, with “O3b” standing for the “Other three billion” in the world that didn’t have broadband internet. Over the years, the company delivered services to the Cook Islands, Pakistan, and Nigeria along with four of the five major cruise lines fleet, NOAA, and the Department of Defense, listing verticals such as telcos and MNOs, governments, energy and mining companies, cruise and commercial maritime, enterprise, and aviation.
More recently, SES has partnered with Microsoft to deliver Azure Cloud access anywhere in the world, but there are no clear statistics on how many of the other three billion O3b has added to the internet.
“Our vision can change the lives of billions: almost half the entire human population is not yet connected,” OneWeb claims, but its targeted customers are maritime, aviation, enterprise, and government, with 5G worked in for good measure. There’s no clearly articulated path on how selling to big businesses translates into affordable access for billions of unserved and underserved people.
“Because that’s where the money is,” Willie Sutton, bank robber, once stated.
SpaceX executives believe the Starlink network could bring in as much as $30 billion a year, cash the company will use to fund Elon Musk’s ambition to colonize Mars. The company’s March 5, 2021, FCC filing requesting a blanket license for “earth stations in motion” (ESIM) focused on the company’s ability to deliver broadband services to large vehicles, ships and aircraft – going after the same government, maritime, and aviation sectors as O3b and OneWeb.
A week earlier, PC Mag expressed “concern” that urban Starlink deployments would take up satellite capacity “for the rural users who really need it. Starlink will have to manage its signups smartly.” Other publications have repeated the premise that Starlink’s reason for existence is to provide service to the unserved/underserved, so there’s no reason to worry about satellite affecting planned greenfield fiber deployments or network upgrades.
The cold truth is SpaceX is out to make money, so it’s going to sign up as many customers as can best afford the service and prioritize customers bringing in higher revenues such as enterprise, governments, and verticals. Revenue management is the name of the game, not rural users who need it. It is the same business template O3b and OneWeb are following today and Telesat and Amazon will in the future.
Satellite services provide both good and bad aspects for underserved/unserved geographics. In some clear cases, satellite will be the most cost-effective way to deliver broadband to rural locations because the local phone or cable company cannot economically provide a viable alternative. Higher-speed services such as Starlink should also serve as a competitive stimulus for rural incumbents to upgrade networks on a more proactive basis than simply “milking the asset” until things break or customers start leaving to other options.
It remains to be seen if Starlink services will have a large-scale detrimental impact on rural service providers and will depend the concentration of Starlink customers within a specific geographic area. One or two customers picking up satellite services is unlikely to influence fiber buildout or network upgrade plans, but 10 or more most certainly could, especially if some of those customers are local business and government purchasers.
Gary Bolton serves as president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association — the largest trade association in the Americas dedicated to all-fiber-optic broadband. With more than three decades in the telecom industry, Bolton has been highly involved in Washington, particularly on FCC and Congressional proceedings and international trade issues. He holds an MBA from Duke University and a BS in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
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