Experts disagree on how broadband rollout should be handled with new federal dollars: Broadband Breakfast

WASHINGTON, December 7, 2021 – The telecommunications industry is concerned that the technology neutrality provision in the infrastructure bill, which includes $ 65 billion for broadband, will invest a large chunk of the money in satellites in low earth orbit that would eventually lose their ability to meet federal funds requirements.

Cartesian, a telecommunications and technology consultancy, conducted a study earlier this year that was commissioned by the Fiber Broadband Association and the NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, and found that SpaceX’s Starlink LEO fleet would be short. capacity within 10 years. LEO constellations are known to require a lot of satellites for coverage and capacity, making them an expensive endeavor.

As part of its obligations, SpaceX is to offer download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps to 640,000 locations in the United States. Michel Dargue said in a recent interview with Broadband Breakfast. “We wanted to know if there was sufficient capacity within Starlink’s planned fleet. “

Cartesian estimated that Starlink could face a capacity shortage before the end of the decade in 2028. “Just over half of RDOF subscribers would not get the 100 Mbps [Starlink committed to], said Dargue.

The problem for critics of Starlink’s capabilities is that Starlink continues to launch satellites into the skies at a breakneck pace, which means the company will continue to seek an ever-increasing share of federal funds. Before the Federal Communications Commission began reviewing the winners of the $ 9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunities Fund, the company had received nearly $ 900 million from the fund for its fleet.

There are now fears that the technology neutrality provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Law, enacted in mid-November, as well as the promotion of satellite technology in the bill, mean that more money will be spent on nascent technology versus more proven technologies like fiber.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on these concerns. Broadband Breakfast also reached out to Ligado and OneWeb to get LEO’s perspective, but had no response. When approached, the Association of Wireless Internet Service Providers declined to comment.

President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association Gary Bolton said in an interview that federal funds from the infrastructure bill represent “a once in a generation opportunity to get fiber to every American.”

“The money is out there,” Bolton said. “There is no longer the question of ‘can we do this on the cheap? “”

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“LEO satellites are great if I’m climbing Mount Everest, or if I’m in an off-grid location and need to be able to make a phone call or access the Internet,” Bolton said. “It’s good, but if you’re talking about developing the economic development of your community, it’s not so good. “

FCC must study Starlink

Dargue said the Cartesian study was explicitly from an “outside-in” point of view and that the assessment was only able to exploit data that SpaceX had made public. The evaluation noted, however, that due to limited information regarding Starlink’s technical capabilities in the public domain and Starlink’s technical and business plans appear to be constantly evolving, it is difficult to truly assess the extent of the potential. of Starlink (or lack thereof). .

“[The FCC] really must do this assessment themselves in detail, ”said Dargue. “We didn’t have access to the engineering data from Starlink and really, if you’re going to give an award of this size, which spans a 10-year period, you have to make sure the numbers are correct. If you get to seven or eight years later and it doesn’t work anymore, what do you do then?

“We were generous enough [to Starlink] in some ways, ”Dargue added. The evaluation assumed that the areas served would not have any terrain features that would block reception, so that all subscribers within range of a satellite can connect to that satellite. In addition, the evaluation assumed that the throughput of each satellite in the Starlink constellation was 20 Gbps with no pinch point elsewhere in the network.

“Then, using demand modeling based on current demand and how Cisco and others expect it to increase over the next decade, we look to see if there will be sufficient capacity within the fleet to meet geographic demand, ”said Dargue.

Dargue said that doesn’t mean consumers will never see their service 100/20, but that consumer usage during peak demand hours will exceed available capacity. He said that for consumers, this will lead to a deterioration in the quality of service, leading to buffering, reduced resolutions and other potential disruption to Internet services.

LEO supporters say technology is important for redundancy

While the study was not favorable to Starlink and SpaceX, Dargue is not arguing for the satellite to be excluded from the infrastructure equation. “It’s definitely part of the mix,” he said. “LEO satellites and other constellations are really good at serving very remote places off the beaten track and in areas where there is no high demand cluster.”

Likewise, supporters of LEO and Starlink satellites, including the Gigabit Library Network, have said the technology is a great way to achieve redundant connections in the event of an outage. It is also crucial that some areas cannot be physically connected to the premises.

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