SpaceX’s most recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) details plans to offer phone service and backups through its Starlink satellite constellation and low-cost Internet access for low-income customers through the Lifeline program.
The filing indicates that SpaceX plans to become an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act. The company says that the designation is necessary to make full use of federal grants like the money it competed for in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program. SpaceX could place bids for a cut of the $16 billion that the RDOF program had available to develop broadband Internet service for rural regions that were previously neglected by Internet service providers.
SpaceX has already made Starlink available to some populations in the United States that have been held back by the “Digital Divide,” a lack of reliable and affordable Internet service. The Hoh Tribe has indicated that it has plans to use Starlink to access services like online education and telehealth options. A school district in Texas has worked with SpaceX to make satellite Internet service available to its low-income students.
The effort has not been without its obstacles, however. Most recently, ViaSat has filed a regulatory challenge claiming that Starlink satellites could clutter up low-Earth orbit. “Space junk” that consists mostly of spent rocket stages and “dead” satellites that are still in orbit could collide with active rockets. Elon Musk was, of course, critical of the challenge, saying that ViaSat cares more about the competition posed by Starlink than about the “space junk” problem.
SpaceX’s plans for phone service mostly focuses on high-quality Voice over IP (VoIP) services, which enables the use of phone service over the Internet’s existing infrastructure rather than that used by traditional land line companies.
SpaceX is currently exploring the use of a white-label managed service provider (MSP) platform for the VoIP offering and plans to offer it as a “common carrier” service. Under Title II regulations, common carriers have to follow net neutrality rules that have previously been opposed by broadband Internet service providers. However, SpaceX’s seeming willingness to follow net neutrality regulations may indicate that it doesn’t regard them as a huge burden on a satellite Internet service constellation that will include 42,000 satellites when it is complete. This may be based on “Better than Nothing Beta” tests that indicate that Starlink’s existing infrastructure and satellites perform well even in harsh winter conditions.
The phone service will be offered as a stand-alone offering. The filing with the FCC says that the service will include “(a) voice-grade access to the public switched telephone network (‘PSTN’) or its functional equivalent; (b) minutes of use for local service provided at no additional charge to end users; (c) access to emergency services; and (d) toll limitation services to qualifying low-income consumers.”
According to the filing, SpaceX can also provide a 24-hour battery backup for phones that can enable communications in situations where the power has been disabled. Many natural disasters come with the loss of power and, with it, difficulty in communicating with the outside world when phones can’t be charged and phone towers that can relay a signal are disabled.
The filings also indicate that Starlink terminals will be able to route data packets around damaged facilities and handle spikes in data usage. The plan includes having multiple satellites within “line of site” of any particular place on Earth and having multiple avenues through which the satellites can relay data. SpaceX has already tested its ability to keep communications open through Starlink in an emergency by partnering with Washington State’s emergency services as they battled last year’s wildfires in the state.
SpaceX plans to work with the government’s Lifeline program to offer discounted Internet service for low-income customers. Starlink’s typical $499 upfront cost for equipment and $99 monthly subscription fee is likely to be too steep for its target audience of communities that have suffered the effects of the “Digital Divide.” Even Lifeline’s usual $9.25 monthly subsidy for broadband access and $5.25 monthly subsidy for phone service may not help much, and SpaceX does acknowledge that it doesn’t yet have any Lifeline customers. However, it does have the option to offer cheaper plans for its customers.
The most recent filing may come off as SpaceX crossing its T’s and dotting its I’s from a regulatory standpoint in an environment where it has already established that Starlink can deliver Internet access to underserved communities and in harsh weather conditions that might otherwise impact satellite Internet service. Its plan to add “Voice over IP” phone service is especially interesting because it shows SpaceX’s seriousness about its promise to keep communications open even in less than ideal conditions.