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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.

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.

Satellite

FCC GOP Commissioner Endorses Satellite Streamlining Bill

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

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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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Satellite

LEO Technology Could Connect the Unconnected, Although Capacity Questions Remain

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

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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

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.’

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, via fcc.gov

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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