SpaceX and Viasat fight over whether Starlink can meet FCC speed obligations

A Starlink satellite dish on the roof of a house.
Enlarge / A Starlink satellite dish.

Over a year and a half after tentatively winning $886 million in broadband funding from the government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), SpaceX is still trying to get paid by the Federal Communications Commission. One problem for Starlink—though not the only problem—is a series of objections from satellite company Viasat, which says Starlink lacks the capacity and speed to meet FCC obligations.

In a new FCC filing, SpaceX denounced Viasat’s “misguided campaign” against the Starlink funding. “Viasat is transparently attempting to have the Commission impede competition at all costs to protect its legacy technology,” SpaceX told the FCC. The new SpaceX filing was submitted on Friday and posted to the FCC’s website Monday, as pointed out by Light Reading.

But SpaceX might have struggled to get its funding even if Viasat never objected. Starlink was tentatively awarded $886 million in December 2020 by the FCC during the final weeks of Chairman Ajit Pai’s tenure. Consumer advocacy group Free Press accused Pai of “subsidiz[ing] broadband for the rich,” pointing out that Starlink was awarded money in urban areas including locations at or adjacent to major airports.

Starlink service isn’t geographically restricted in the same way as wireline networks, but the RDOF and other programs require ISPs to bid on specific census blocks. Starlink won bids covering 642,925 homes and businesses in 35 states.

In addition to rural areas, SpaceX won “the right to serve a large number of very urban areas that the FCC’s broken system deemed eligible for awards,” Free Press said. A design flaw in the FCC’s mapping system made it possible to bid on subsidies in census blocks that were “surrounded on all sides by fiber.”

Pai’s FCC auction mismanaged

That RDOF auction was apparently mismanaged by Pai, as Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced in July 2021 that the agency must “clean up issues with the program’s design originating from its adoption in 2020.” The FCC cited “complaints that the program was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas.”

Rosenworcel’s office sent letters to dozens of winning bidders, suggesting that they voluntarily give up portions of their funding. SpaceX was one of the auction’s biggest winners, and Rosenworcel’s FCC asked the company to give up funding in about 6 percent of the 113,900 census blocks where SpaceX tentatively won FCC grants.

The FCC letters to SpaceX and other ISPs pointed to concerns “that certain areas included in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction are already served by one or more service providers that offer 25/3Mbps broadband service or otherwise raise significant concerns about wasteful spending, such as parking lots and international airports.”

SpaceX didn’t agree to give up any funding and is apparently still trying to get the full amount. While the FCC review of SpaceX’s funding is ongoing, the commission has periodically released RDOF money to various other ISPs over the past year. The FCC also recently proposed $4.3 million in fines against 73 ISPs for defaulting on their bids.

Pai’s auction also awarded $1.32 billion to a Las Vegas company called LTD Broadband to serve 528,088 locations in 15 states. But LTD subsequently “missed filing deadlines and failed to secure regulatory approvals needed to receive the money,” The Wall Street Journal wrote.

Viasat: Starlink can’t meet speed requirement

Viasat submitted an analysis to the FCC in April 2021 claiming that Starlink won’t be able to meet the speed obligations attached to the RDOF funding due to capacity limitations. SpaceX bid in the “Above Baseline” tier that requires at least 100Mbps download speeds and 20Mbps upload speeds, and committed to latency of 100 ms or less. Viasat, which primarily uses geostationary satellites with worse latency than Starlink’s low Earth satellites, didn’t bid in the auction.

Viasat’s most recent filing last month said, “Starlink still does not support the 100/20Mbps speeds that SpaceX is obligated to provide to all households covered by its provisionally winning RDOF bids” and that “Starlink is unable to do so because of its own system design limitations that cannot be overcome by launching more satellites.”

Viasat cited Ookla speed tests in its July 2022 filing:

Ookla reports that in Q1 2022 Starlink users experienced median download speeds of 90.55Mbps (well under the 100Mbps speeds required under the RDOF framework) and median upload speeds of 9.33Mbps (less than half the 20Mbps speeds required under the RDOF framework). Importantly, Ookla’s findings show a quarter-over-quarter decrease in median download speeds of about 14 percent, and a decrease in median upload speeds of at least 33 percent. In other words, the performance of the Starlink system has not improved over time in any consistent or persistent manner as SpaceX has deployed its system.

“As the number of Starlink subscribers increases, the system will become even more capacity-constrained, which is likely to impair network performance and constrain speeds for end users,” Viasat also said. The areas in which SpaceX won FCC funding “are characterized by relatively high densities of users,” Viasat wrote, pointing out that SpaceX’s website warns of lower speeds in congested areas and during times of high usage.

SpaceX says it’s cooperating with FCC review

In its July 29 response, SpaceX said the “filing adds to Viasat’s ongoing campaign to oppose every one of SpaceX’s applications, regardless of the proceeding… Viasat is perhaps reinvigorated by recent Ookla data showing Starlink has been able to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband service vastly exceeding Viasat’s performance.”

SpaceX also previously denounced Viasat’s objections in FCC filings in July 2021 and December 2021. The old and new SpaceX filings said the company is cooperating with FCC staff on the Starlink funding review.

“Viasat continues to ignore that the Commission specifically directed the Commission staff—not competitors—to review the merits of RDOF applications,” SpaceX’s new filing said. “Starlink has welcomed that staff review and has fully engaged within that Commission-mandated process to demonstrate its ability to meet all of its RDOF obligations and provide high-quality broadband service to consumers that for too long have gone unserved.”

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