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

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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.

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Starlink Download Speeds Fell Below New Federal Broadband Standard in Q3, Ookla Data Show

According to data from Ookla, Starlink’s median speeds in the U.S. dipped below 100 Mbps download, the speeds required for federal infrastructure bill money.

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Starlink CEO Elon Musk

WASHINGTON, December 22, 2021 – SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service saw an average decrease in download and upload speeds during the third quarter, according to data from Ookla, as critics question whether the service will not be able to live up to federal speed standards.

Between the second and third quarters of 2021, Starlink’s median download speeds in the U.S. fell by an average of approximately 10 Mbps, according to data collected by Ookla, which runs speed tests. Upload speeds were less impacted, falling just 0.35 Mbps.

At these speeds, many of those being served by SpaceX’s service would be considered underserved as per the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act of 2021, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in November of 2021. The legislation provides billions in funding for broadband and classifies anyone receiving services under 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload to be unserved, while anyone receiving under 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload is underserved.

If the data is accurate, this may confirm some of the fears expressed by telecom experts such as Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton, who has argued that communities “served” by Starlink will be de-prioritized during the IIJA rounds of funding while also not receiving scalable, sustainable, broadband infrastructure.

Next year is supposed to be a big year for Starlink, when it is supposed to conclude its beta stage and move into its full-service model, whereby thousands of people will get access to high-speed, affordable broadband through the program’s low-earth orbit satellite constellation.

Despite the dip in speeds, Ookla data shows Starlink’s services appear to be outperforming satellite broadband providers Viasat and HughesNet by a significant margin, domestically. Neither service can crack 20 Mbps median download speeds or 3 Mbps median upload speeds, falling just short in both categories.

According to Ookla’s data, Starlink’s internet speeds vary greatly from county to county and state to state. Santa Fe County, New Mexico experienced the fastest median speeds at 146.58 Mbps, compared to Drummond Township, Michigan’s 46.63 Mbps. Two jurisdictions using the same technology through the same service have median coverage speeds with a 100 Mbps difference.

Starlink was also one of the largest recipients of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s reverse auction, as it was awarded more than $885.5 million of the total $9.2 billion in total awards, though the Federal Communications Commission is currently asking providers, including Starlink, if they want to pull back their bids for fear of building where services already exist.

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Critics Concerned Infrastructure Bill Money Will Go to Satellites, Harm Fiber Builds

The infrastructure bill’s tech neutrality is concerning critics who say money will go to satellite, not enough to fiber.

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WASHINGTON, December 7, 2021 – There is concern in the telecom industry that the technology neutrality provision in the infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for broadband, would put a chunk of money into low-earth orbit satellites that would eventually lose its ability to uphold requirements for federal funds.

Cartesian, a consulting firm in telecom and technology, conducted a study earlier this year that was commissioned by the Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, and found that SpaceX’s Starlink LEO fleet would run out of capacity within 10 years. LEO constellations are known to require a lot of satellites for coverage and capacity, which makes it an expensive business.

As part of its obligations, SpaceX must offer 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds to 640,000 locations across the U.S. “That is quite a lot of capacity,” Cartesian Vice President Michael Dargue said in a recent interview with Broadband Breakfast. “We wanted to find out whether there was sufficient capacity within Starlink’s planned fleet.”

Cartesian estimated that Starlink could face a shortfall in capacity before the end of the decade in 2028. “Just over half of the RDOF subscribers wouldn’t get the full 100 Mbps that [Starlink committed to],” said Dargue.

The problem for critics of Starlink’s abilities is that Starlink continues to launch satellites into the sky at a blistering pace, which will mean the company will continue to seek an ever-growing share of federal funds. Before the Federal Communications Commission began scrutinizing winners of the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the company had been awarded nearly $900 million from the fund for its fleet.

Now there’s concern that the technology neutrality provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in mid-November, as well as the bill’s promotion of satellite technology will mean more money going toward the nascent technology versus more proven technologies like fiber.

SpaceX did not respond to the requests for comment on these concerns. Broadband Breakfast also contacted Ligado and OneWeb to get the LEO perspective but did not hear back. When approached, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association declined to comment.

Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton said in an interview that federal funds coming down the pipe from the infrastructure bill represent a “once in a generation opportunity to get fiber to every American.

“The money is available,” Bolton said. “There is no longer a question of, ‘can we do this on the cheap?’”

A state-appointed task force for broadband in Alaska found that the federal money could allow the state famously known for difficult terrain for broadband builds to have a statewide fiber network.

“LEO satellites are great if I am climbing Mount Everest, or if I’m in some off the grid location and I need to be able to make a phone call or get on the internet,” said Bolton. “That’s great, but if you’re talking about building up the economic development for your community, that’s not so great.”

FCC needs to study Starlink

Dargue said the Cartesian study was explicitly from an “outside-in” perspective, and that the assessment was only able to go off data that SpaceX had made publicly available. The assessment noted, however, that because there is limited information regarding Starlink’s technical capabilities in the public domain, and Starlink’s technical and commercial plans seem to be constantly changing, it is difficult to truly assess the full extent of Starlink’s potential (or lack thereof).

“[The FCC] really needs to do this assessment themselves in detail,” Dargue said. “We did not have access to Starlink’s engineering data and really, if you’re going to make an award of this size, which is over a 10-year period, you need to make sure that the numbers are right. If you get to seven or eight years down the road and it does not work anymore, what do you do then?

“We were quite generous [to Starlink] in some ways,” added Dargue. The assessment assumed that served regions would not have any terrain features that would block reception, so all subscribers within range of a satellite can connect to that satellite. Additionally, the assessment assumed that the throughput of each satellite in the Starlink constellation was 20 Gbps with no pinch-points elsewhere in the network.

“Then, using demand modeling based on current demand and how Cisco and others expect that to grow over the coming decade, we look to see whether there will be enough capacity within the fleet to serve the geographic demand,” said Dargue.

Dargue said this did not mean that consumers would never see their service at 100/20, but that consumer use during peak demand hours would exceed the available capacity. He said that for consumers, this would spell a deterioration in the quality of service, resulting in buffering, scaled down resolutions, and other potential disruptions to internet services.

Proponents of LEOs say technology is important for redundancy

Though the study was not favorable to Starlink and SpaceX, Dargue is not arguing for satellite to be left out of the infrastructure equation. “It’s definitely part of the mix,” he said. “LEO satellites and other constellations are really good at serving very remote locations off the beaten track and in areas where you do not have a cluster of high demand.”

Similarly, proponents of LEO satellites and Starlink, including the Gigabit Libraries Network, have said the technology serves as an excellent way to get redundant connections in case of an outage. It is also crucial is some areas that can’t get a physical connection to the premises.

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LEO Satellite Technology Should Be in All Schools, Gigabit Libraries Network Says

Satellites, at the very least, can act as backup connections, webinar heard.

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Don Means from the Gigabit Libraries Network

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.

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