Should Satellite Broadband be Subsidized?

I don’t get surprised very often in this industry, but I must admit that I was surprised by the amount of money awarded for satellite broadband in the reverse auction for CAF II earlier this year. Viasat, Inc., which markets as Exede, was the fourth largest winner, collecting $122.5 million in the auction.

I understand how Viasat won – it’s largely a function of the way that reverse auctions work. In a reverse auction, each bidder lowers the amount of their bid in successive rounds until only one bidder is left in any competitive situation. The whole pool of bids is then adjusted to meet the available funds, which could mean an additional reduction of what winning bidders finally receive.

Satellite providers, by definition, have a huge unfair advantage over every other broadband technology. Viasat was already in the process of launching new satellites – and they would have launched them with or without the FCC grant money. Because of that, there is no grant level too low for them to accept out of the grant process – they would gladly accept getting only 1% of what they initially requested. A satellite company can simply outlast any other bidder in the auction.

This is particularly galling since Viasat delivers what the market has already deemed to be inferior broadband. The download speeds are fast enough to satisfy the reverse auction at speeds of at least 12 Mbps. The other current satellite provider HughesNet offer speeds of at least 25 Mbps. The two issues that customers have with satellite broadband is the latency and the data caps.

By definition, the latency for a satellite at a 23,000 orbit is at least 476 ms (milliseconds) just to account for the distance traveled to and from the earth. Actual latency is often above 600 ms. The rule of thumb is that real-time applications like VoIP, gaming, or holding a connection at a corporate LAN start having problems when latency is greater than 100-150 ms.

Exede no longer cuts customers dead for the month once they reach the data cap, but they instead reduce speeds when the network is busy for any customer over the cap. Customer reviews say this can be extremely slow during prime times. The monthly data caps are small and range from $49.99 monthly for a 10 GB data cap to $99.95 per month for a 150 GB data cap. To put those caps into perspective, OpenVault recently reported that the average landline broadband household used 273.5 GB per month of data in the first quarter of 2019.

Viasat has to be thrilled with the result of the reverse auction. They got $122.5 million for something they were already doing. The grant money isn’t bringing any new option to customers who were already free to buy these products before the auction. There is no better way to say it other than Viasat got free money due to a loophole in the grant process. I don’t think they should have been allowed into the auction since they aren’t bringing any broadband that is not already available.

The bigger future issue is if the new low-earth orbit satellite companies will qualify for the future FCC grants, such as the $20.4 billion grant program starting in 2021. The new grant programs are also likely to be reverse auctions. There is no doubt that Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk will gladly take government grant money, and there is no doubt that they can underbid any landline ISP in a reverse auction.

For now, we don’t know anything about the speeds that will be offered by the new satellites. We know that they claim that latency will be about the same as cable TV networks at about 25 ms. We don’t know about data plans and data caps, although Elon Musk has hinted at having unlimited data plans – we’ll have to wait to see what is actually offered.

It would be a tragedy for rural broadband if the new (and old) satellite companies were to win any substantial amount of the new grant money. To be fair, the new low-orbit satellite networks are expensive to launch, with price tags for each of the three providers estimated to be in the range of $10 billion. But these companies are using these satellites worldwide and will be launching them with or without help from an FCC subsidy. Rural customers are going to best be served in the long run by having somebody build a network in their neighborhood. It’s the icing on the cake if they are also able to buy satellite broadband.

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