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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.

Satellite

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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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?

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Visualization of spectrum from the Australian Department of Infrastructure

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.”

Eric Graham of OneWeb, V. Noah Campbell of RS Access, Jeffrey Blum of DISH

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.

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