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Experts Investigating Starlink Are Not Convinced that Elon Musk’s Satellite Project Provides Rural Broadband Solution



Photo of Cartesian Vice President Michael Dargue from February 2015 by Telecom Finance

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.

Screenshot of the Tuesday webinar

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.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at Broadband Breakfast.


FCC GOP Commissioner Endorses Satellite Streamlining Bill

The Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act would ease FCC permitting for the rapidly growing satellite industry.



Screenshot of FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington in 2021

WASHINGTON, December 12, 2022 – As Congress scrambles to negotiate an end-of-year omnibus, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Nathan Simington on Thursday touted technical potential of satellite broadband and endorsed a bill that would streamline satellite permitting.

The bipartisan Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, introduced Thursday with the Secure Space Act, would ease the FCC’s permitting process for the rapidly growing satellite industry. It’s companion bill bars the agency from authorizing non-geostationary satellites from entities that also offer products found on the “covered list,” which identifies equipment and services that pose “unacceptable” risks to national security.

“American companies are leading the way in the space economy revolution, and Congress has recognized that we must act quickly to secure America’s role as the home to the most innovative new companies in the emerging launch and satellite sectors,” said Simington, an outspoken proponent of satellite broadband, in a statement. “There is an insatiable hunger for low-latency, high-bandwidth broadband connections in every corner of the U.S. that satellite broadband providers are racing to feed,” he added.

The junior Republican-appointed commissioner in September criticized the FCC’s revocation of a $885 million, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund award to satellite-broadband provider Starlink. Commissioner Brendan Carr also criticized the flip-flop. At the end of September, Simington, Carr, and their colleagues unanimously adopted an order that required the removal of satellite debris from space, and in November, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the inception of a dedicated space bureau at the agency.

Outside the FCC, many experts say current satellite broadband is technologically incapable of providing reliable broadband, an assessment echoed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in its guidelines for the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment fund.

Will bipartisan broadband bills beat the buzzer?

The Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act, a bill that would make non-taxable broadband grants from the BEAD program and the American Rescue Plan Act, may yet become law by year’s end, spokespeople for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Penn., told Broadband Breakfast Monday.

And if the bill isn’t passed this month, the spokespeople said, each legislator plans to advance it in the 118th Congress.

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LEO Technology Could Connect the Unconnected, Although Capacity Questions Remain

Unlike geostationary satellites, LEOs offer a connection that can support real-time communication.



Screenshot of Internet Society Director of Online Content Dan York

WASHINGTON, December 2, 2022 — Low earth orbit satellites have the potential to provide life-changing connectivity for rural and underserved users if they can overcome issues of affordability and sustainability, according to Dan York, director of online content for the Internet Society.

Speaking at a Friday event hosted by the Gigabit Libraries Network, York explained that LEO technology can help to not only connect the two billion people worldwide who are unserved but also improve connectivity for the underserved.

Traditional geostationary satellites can provide some connectivity, but the high latency prevents uses like video calling or online gaming. LEOs offer a low-latency, high-speed connection that supports real-time communication.

In addition to being an interim solution while fiber buildout takes place, LEOs can provide redundancy during disasters and other outages, said Don Means, director of the Gigabit Libraries Network.

York agreed, noting that LEO satellites played an important role in providing connectivity during the aftermath of Hurricane Ian or during wildfires in California.

“Starlink makes it super easy because they can bring one of their trailers into a location, put up a Starlink antenna on the top, bring that connectivity down and then they can share it locally with Wi-Fi access points or cellular access points so people can be able to get that kind of connectivity — first responders, but also people in that local community.”

LEO satellites can provide connectivity even for certain locations that lack a ground station by using inter-satellite lasers, York added.

There are three primary LEO system components. Satellite constellations are made up of hundreds or thousands of satellites, launched into orbit and arranged into “shells” at various altitudes.

User terminals facilitate the transmission and receipt of data to and from the satellites. The antennas are “electronically steerable,” meaning that they can track multiple satellites without physically moving.

The final LEO system component is ground stations, also known as gateways, which are the large antennas and facilities that connect the satellites to the internet.

Advances in rocket technology are driving an increase in LEO satellites, York said. For example, SpaceX is reusing rockets, making launches less expensive. The relatively smaller size of LEO satellites means that they can be mass produced using assembly lines.

However, affordability is still a barrier to widespread adoption, York said. Another challenge is competition with mobile telecom companies for spectrum allocation. ISOC recently released a study discussing these issues and making recommendations for their resolution.

There is also still some uncertainty about the capacity of these connections, York said, pointing to anecdotal reports as well as an Ookla study showing that Starlink’s capacity had decreased in certain areas.

“How much of that is growing pains while Starlink continues to build out the rest of its constellation, versus how much of it might be inherent limitations within the systems?” he asked. “We don’t know. I think we probably won’t know until more of these systems get up and are launched.”

Despite these questions, York was optimistic about the promise of LEO technology: “I think there’s great potential that these systems, as they come online, can truly offer us ways to connect the unconnected.”

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FCC to Establish New Space Bureau, Chairwoman Says

‘The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head.’



Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, via

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2022 — The Federal Communications Commission will add a new space bureau that will modernize regulations and facilitate innovation, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced Thursday.

The new bureau is intended to facilitate American leadership in the space economy, boost the Commission’s technical capacity, and foster interagency cooperation, Rosenworcel said, speaking at the National Press Club.

“The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head,” Rosenworcel said. “But the organizational structures of the [FCC] have not kept pace,” she added.

The space economy is “on a monumental run” of growth and innovation, the chairwoman argued, and the FCC must remodel itself to facilitate continued growth. Rosenworcel said the commission is currently reviewing 64,000 new satellite applications, and she further noted that 98 percent of all satellites launched in 2021 provided internet connectivity. By the end off 2022, operators will set a new record for satellites launched into orbit, she said.

The FCC will not take on new responsibilities, Rosenworcel said, but the announced restructuring will help the agency “perform[] existing statutory responsibilities better.” In September, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., warned the FCC against overreaching its statutory mandate and voiced support for robust congressional oversight – a position reiterated by House staffers Wednesday.

“The formation of a dedicated space bureau within the FCC is a positive step for satellite operators and customers across the United States,” said Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs at Amazon’s satellite broadband Project Kuiper, on a panel following Rosenworcel’s announcement.

“An important part of [Rosenworcel’s] space agenda is ensuring that there is a competitive environment in all aspects of that space,” said Umair Javed, the chairwoman’s chief counsel, during the panel. “So we’ve taken action to update our rules on spectrum sharing to make sure that there are opportunities for multiple systems to be successful in low Earth orbit.

“We’ve granted a number of experimental authorizations to companies that are doing really new…things,” Umair continued.

The FCC in September required that low–Earth orbit satellite debris be removed within five years of mission completion, a move Rosenworcel said would clear the way for new innovation.

In August, the FCC revoked an $885 million grant to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-broadband service. FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington criticized the reversal, and Starlink has since appealed it.

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