Customers of the SpaceX Starlink satellite broadband service are likely to receive inferior service in areas for which SpaceX won funding through the RDOF (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) auction, according to a SpaceX service report commissioned by NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA). The report is based on a technical analysis conducted by technology researchers at Cartesian.
SpaceX was one of the biggest winners in the RDOF auction, which awarded funding to the company that committed to bringing broadband to unserved areas for the lowest level of support, with a weighting system favoring bids to provide faster service and lower latency. SpaceX won $885 million in the RDOF auction to cover some of the costs of making broadband available to people in unserved areas of 35 states.
Unlike traditional satellite providers, SpaceX uses non-geostationary satellites that are closer to Earth to minimize latency. The company committed to deploying low-latency service at speeds of 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream, but the Cartesian report questions whether the company will be able to do that consistently.
SpaceX Service Report
As NTCA and FBA note in a letter to the FCC accompanied by the report, “If SpaceX were to engineer its network to serve only the requisite number of RDOF locations and then serve no other locations (i.e., the network is engineered to serve 70% of 642,925 locations), Cartesian estimates that 56% of SpaceX’s RDOF locations in the low capacity case (average bandwidth usage of 15.3 Mbps per location) and 57% of locations in the high capacity case (average bandwidth usage of 20.8 Mbps per customer) will experience service degradation during peak times and not meet the RDOF public interest requirements; further, Cartesian estimates that 25% to 29% of locations will receive an average of less than 10 Mbps of bandwidth during peak times.”
Service would vary from one state to another, with Midwest and Western states seeing adequate service assuming SpaceX only serves RDOF locations, even in the high-capacity case, according to the report. But Eastern states would not receive sufficient bandwidth even in the RDOF-only low-usage scenario.
It would seem unlikely, however, that SpaceX would dedicate its entire capacity for an area to RDOF but instead would also seek to serve other customers, the associations note in the letter. The associations note that SpaceX public announcements indicate that the company is exploring service for U.S. defense applications, industries such as oil and gas exploration and vehicle broadband.
If SpaceX were to devote just 10% of its capacity to non-RDOF subscribers, the percentage of customers receiving sufficient capacity would decline. Even in the best-served Midwest and West, only 88% of customers would receive sufficient capacity at the 20.8 Mbps usage level. If 20% of SpaceX capacity were to go toward non-RDOF locations, the 88% figure would drop dramatically to just 22%, according to Cartesian’s SpaceX service report.
And if 50% of SpaceX capacity overall is allocated to non-RDOF locations, only 5% to 8% of RDOF locations would receive sufficient bandwidth during peak hours, according to the NTCA and FBA letter.
SpaceX did not immediately reply to a request from Telecompetitor asking for the company’s take on the NTCA and FBA report. The company did provide quite a bit of information about its service in a recent letter to the FCC, but did not include detailed capacity estimates.
In their letter, NTCA and FBA note that SpaceX may have provided the FCC with additional confidential information that might yield different results. The associations added, though, that they “hope at the very least that an analysis of this kind proves useful to the commission as it considers how to structure and undertake its own review of SpaceX’s long-form applications.”
The Cartesian analysis “is intended to be instructive rather than conclusive in demonstrating the detailed level and types of analysis needed to evaluate the capabilities of a low-earth orbit satellite system to deliver on RDOF commitments,” the letter states.