SpaceX's Starlink is designed to offer high-speed satellite internet access with low latency, but the FCC has its doubts.
On Thursday, the United States' Federal Communications Commission released a note about its evolving plans to give funding to internet companies, Ars Technica reported. Federal subsidies up to $16 billion will be given to improve rural internet access over the next 10 years, but one factor under consideration is the internet access responds fast enough to requests that it can be considered "low-latency."
SpaceX has argued that its Starlink constellation, which is expected to enter private beta later this year, could offer response times between 25 to 35 milliseconds. This would be much better than existing satellite internet providers, which can reach around 600 milliseconds, and much closer to the sort of latencies that can be found on hardwired fiber-optic connections. SpaceX claims it can do this because its satellites orbit much lower, 550 kilometers above the Earth, and it wants to launch tens of thousands to fill out the sky.
Unfortunately, the commission is not yet convinced. The report states:
"In the absence of such a real-world performance example, Commission staff could not conclude at this time that such a short-form applicant is reasonably capable of meeting the Commission’s low latency requirements. We therefore have serious doubts that any low earth orbit networks will be able to meet the short-form application requirements for bidding in the low latency tier."
The issue taps into one of the big debates around SpaceX's Starlink plans. A February 7 draft of the subsidy auction rules suggested Starlink and other providers would not be classed as low latency, which refers to services below 100 milliseconds. David Goldman, SpaceX's director of satellite policy, argued in a February 20 letter that low latency "results from the laws of physics." If the satellite is closer, the logic goes, the signals have less distance to travel.
The plan has attracted big support from rural Americans tired of their existing broadband services. One potential customer told Inverse that "I honestly had lost all hope until I heard about Starlink."
This week seemed to suggest a change in position. Ars Technica reported that commissioner Ajit Pai had seemingly changed position, enabling satellite firms to participate in the bidding process. The final document makes it clearer that these firms would need to prove the technology delivers on its promises:
"Short-form applicants seeking to bid as a low-latency provider using low-Earth orbit satellite networks will face a substantial challenge demonstrating to Commission staff that their networks can deliver real-world performance to consumers below the Commission's 100ms low-latency threshold."
Unfortunately, the deadline to apply is July 15, and SpaceX has yet to start its private beta tests for the constellation. The process will also lock out Starlink and others from trying to demonstrate gigabit internet speeds, an accolade that will be reserved for more traditional connections.
The Inverse analysis – For the commission, this appears to be something of a compromise with several key players. Trade groups like NCTA-The Rural Broadband Association had expressed concern that the commission was about to let satellite operators into the bidding process, despite these systems not yet running. The commission's new documents suggest that it has taken this on board as part of the process.
Getting locked out of the low-latency tier doesn't mean Starlink won't get any funding. The story does suggest, however, that SpaceX will have an easier time convincing authorities and agencies about Starlink once it's actually got the network up and running.