Is SpaceX Starlink low latency? The answer could unlock billions in funding

Elon Musk's constellation could bring access to millions.

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Is SpaceX's planned Starlink constellation a real, low-latency broadband service? That's the question at the heart of a new funding discussion, which could unlock up to $16 billion in federal subsidies.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the company has suggested to the Federal Communications Commission that it should be allowed to compete for funding aimed at improving rural internet access over the next 10 years. A February 7 draft of the auction procedures suggests satellite broadband firms could fail to qualify as low latency, as the networks typically take a long time to respond to user requests compared to land-based networks. SpaceX argues that Starlink does respond quickly enough that it could be considered low latency.

“Low-latency service is not an aspirational feature of a proposed system—it results from the laws of physics,” David Goldman, SpaceX's director of satellite policy, wrote in a February 20 letter urging the agency to reconsider the proposals laid out 13 days prior. In his comments, Goldman is likely referring to the lower orbit of the Starlink satellites, which means signals have further to travel. On February 28, the agency released a proposal that could support satellite services with low enough latency, while also asking the public for input.

The move could help SpaceX access large amounts of funding, in recognition of its potential to help rural Americans struggling with internet access. In many areas, wired connections can be expensive and slow. Satellite internet connections are sometimes the only option, but they can be expensive and slow. A 2013 analysis found these can offer 20 times higher latency, reaching 638 milliseconds. That makes it impractical for applications like online video games, where lightning-fast reflexes are essential.

Starlink could offer the answer. Unlike other systems, which use tens of satellites, SpaceX has applied for permission to fill the sky with up to 42,000 satellites. The craft will orbit around 550 kilometers above the Earth's surface, while other satellites can orbit more than 1,000 kilometers above the surface. A UFO-shaped gound antenna, described as about the size of a pizza box, will provide access to a home through line-of-sight communications with the satellites.

This could result in far better latency. Musk explained in May 2019 that the team is aiming for “sub 20ms latency initially, sub 10ms over time, with much greater consistency than terrestrial links, as only ever a few hops to major data centers.” A 2016 filing showed SpaceX is aiming for latency between 25 and 35 milliseconds.

The team is also aiming for much faster speeds than many Americans can currently access. The 2016 filing claims the company is aiming for one gigabit per second. A test in 2018 reached speeds of over 600 megabits per second.

The idea has some big supporters in rural areas. Debbie Dawson, who lives in southeastern Ohio, told Inverse last week that "I honestly had lost all hope until I heard about Starlink."

SpaceX faces stiff opposition in its bid to access these rural connectivity funds. Among those are NCTA-The Rural Broadband Association, a trade group whose memebrs provide service. A lobbyist for the group expressed concern that the revised rules could let satellite firms win the whole auction.

Questions also remain about whether the FCC should provide funding to an almost-unproven idea. SpaceX is planning to launch more satellites than anyone else in history, and so far it's only launched around 300 Starlink craft.

“This will be a political disaster if Elon F’ing Musk gobbles up billions of dollars of the public’s money,” a congressional aide reportedly wrote in an email seen by the Wall Street Journal.

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