The Rise of Satellite Broadband Deployment
Updated: Apr 4
Over the past few years, the FCC has revised its broadband deployment strategy to include satellite-provided internet. This article seeks to give a full overview of the advances in technology, changes in regulation, and the most recent events surrounding the deployment and funding of satellite internet.
The emergence of companies such as Starlink, a company operated by SpaceX and owned by Elon Musk, has been the main catalyst for the creation of high-speed satellite internet. Starlink has completely re-imagined how satellites can send and receive signals from space to Earth through the use of satellites that are lower in the atmosphere (about 550km from the surface compared to over 35,000km with older internet-providing satellites). Being closer to the Earth’s surface means much lower latency for internet signal, and this lower latency allows internet signals to be strong enough for video calls and other common functionalities of modern high-speed internet. Older systems are also considered to be “geostationary”, meaning they rotate with the Earth and cover a certain and specific geographical area. The satellites being deployed for Starlink are non-geostationary, which means that a given satellite orbits the Earth and provides services to the ground that is local to its geographic location at any given time. Thus, this type of satellite is referred to as a NGSO FSS, or a “non-geostationary fixed-satellite service” system. While this strategy allows for the coverage of more geographical area, it requires the use of a fleet of satellites so that all the places on Earth that require internet have connection to a satellite(s) at all times.
Starlink has deployed over 3000 satellites since 2019 thanks to SpaceX rockets, which can carry dozens of satellites into space at a time. Currently, there are over 500,000 subscribers to Starlink internet services in one of four different forms:
Residential Plan- $110/month ($599 one-time installation fee)
Business Plan- $500/month ($2,500 one-time installation fee)
RVs- $135/month ($599 one-time installation fee)
Maritime- $5,000/month ($10,000 one-time, 2 terminal installation fee)
An advantage to satellite-provided internet appears with these plans: the ability to have internet service anywhere you go. This is key for broadband deployment, especially in the most remote areas of the United States that will be the hardest to reach using traditional fiber-optic internet services.
In August 2019, the FCC unveiled the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, worth $20.4 billion, to encourage broadband deployment in areas that do not have access to any high-speed internet. The act was revised in January 2020 to allow for low Earth orbiting (LEO) non-geostationary fixed-satellite service (NGSO FSS) systems to qualify for this funding. The FCC states that this change was made to facilitate the creation and the competition of this type of satellite system. Also in 2020, Starlink and LTD Broadband were tentatively awarded $885 million from this fund for the deployment of satellite internet. However, in August 2022, the FCC rescinded these funds, stating that Starlink satellites were not providing fast enough internet speeds, and that the cost for users was too expensive. On September 9, SpaceX officially appealed this decision, stating that in its decision, the FCC made basic errors and disregarded its own rules.
It is clear that satellite internet is a priority of the FCC and is a promising technology regarding broadband deployment. However, this is still an emerging technology that is far from mature, and concerns, such as speed and reliability of service, are yet to be fully addressed. SpaceX is continuing to improve the service, though, as it deploys more and more satellites. So is satellite internet the ultimate solution for rural broadband deployment? Maybe for the most remote areas of the country, but I don’t think the FCC will fully rely on satellites to solve most rural broadband deployment in the near future.