Is satellite broadband provider Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) considering a bid for rural broadband funding in the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction? A recent meeting with representatives of the company and FCC staffers suggests the answer could be yes.

The RDOF will award funding for unserved rural areas that are costly to serve, with funds awarded to the network operator that offers to deploy broadband for the lowest level of support. A weighting system will favor bids to provide faster speeds and/or lower-latency service – and plans for that weighting system are what drove the SpaceX meeting with the FCC.

SpaceX RDOF Auction
The FCC may prevent all satellite providers from bidding to provide low-latency service. Traditionally, satellites delivering broadband have operated in geostationary high-altitude orbits, which increases latency in comparison with terrestrial options such as fiber-to-the-home or fixed wireless.

SpaceX satellites, on the other hand, operate at lower altitudes than traditional satellite systems. The downside is that the company must deploy more satellites in comparison with high-altitude systems. The plus side is that latency is less than for the high-altitude systems.

In the meeting, SpaceX representatives asked the FCC not to use a blanket prohibition against satellite broadband providers bidding to deliver lower-latency service for the RDOF program.

The “ability of the Starlink system to deliver low-latency service is not an aspirational feature of a proposed system – it results from the laws of physics,” wrote SpaceX in a letter to the FCC recapping the meeting.

SpaceX added that the company already has launched more than 300 satellites and has demonstrated high-speed, low-latency service. An aggressive launch rate will ensure full coverage of the entire U.S., the company said.

SpaceX RDOF
Starlink Mission (Source: SpaceX Flickr account)

ViaSat, a satellite broadband provider that uses high-altitude satellites, was one of the biggest winners in the 2018 Connect America Fund CAF II auction (a previous broadband funding auction) despite its inability to gain the low-latency bidding advantage that was offered in that auction.

It could be more difficult for ViaSat to win funding in the RDOF auction, however, as the FCC has modified the weighting system that was used for CAF II in order to provide a bigger advantage to low-latency bidders. Depending on the FCC’s response to SpaceX, that company may or may not be at a similar disadvantage should it opt to bid in the RDOF auction.

We could know as soon as tomorrow, as the FCC is expected to vote on RDOF bidding procedures at tomorrow’s monthly commission meeting.

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