Will Starlink be in the RDOF Auction?

Jonathan Chambers of Conexon wrote an interesting blog where he assumes that the FCC has already allowed Starlink, the satellite company owned by Elon Musk, into the top tier in the RDOF auction. If so this would be a disastrous decision by the FCC.

The RDOF auction will be a reverse auction, but with a twist. In a reverse auction, the bidder willing to take the least amount of money to provide service to a given geographic service area wins the auction. However, the twist is that the FCC is giving priority to gigabit broadband providers. If there is still a gigabit provider left in a given area after a few rounds of bidding, that bidder wins if the other bidders offer slower technologies. This twist was added to favor fiber deployment, which the FCC understands is the best broadband solution – when a community gets fiber they are set for the rest of the century and the FCC can scratch fiber-served communities off their worry list. The highest tier also favors traditional cable companies that decide to serve areas around towns where they offer gigabit broadband.

If Starlink is allowed to bid as a gigabit provider then the whole auction gets turned upside down. In areas where Starlink is bidding against fixed wireless or other slower technologies, Starlink would always win by simply staying in the auction for a few rounds. To make matters worse, Starlink could bid against fiber providers until the grant awards get so low that a fiber provider drops out of the auction.

If Starlink is considered a gigabit provider and bids on every RDOF cluster, it could theoretically win the entire $16 billion auction. That would mean no money for fiber networks or cable company networks. It would mean no money for fixed wireless networks or other technologies that promise to deliver 100 Mbps broadband or slower.

A natural question to ask is why worry about this if Starlink can deliver gigabit broadband to all of the rural areas covered by the RDOF grants? The easy answer is to that question is that nobody outside of Starlink has any idea what the company can deliver (and even Starlink probably is only guessing at the bandwidth that will come from a fully-deployed network). It’s certainly possible that Starlink satellites can make a 1-gigabit connection to earth – they have enough satellites already in the sky that the company can probably demonstrate this. We know that the recently bankrupt OneWeb demonstrated a 400 Mbps connection from a satellite to an earth station – but that has nothing to do with the amount of bandwidth that can be delivered to many users at the same time. Networks get slower and bog down as users are added and as bandwidth is oversubscribed.

As Chambers suggests, before the FCC offers any public money to Starlink, the company needs to publicly fully disclose its network architecture and capabilities. We already know what fiber networks, cable networks, and fixed wireless networks can deliver. Before opening the public purse-strings to Starlink, let the whole world see how they plan to deploy, so that smart network engineers can opine if fast speeds are possible with a fully-deployed satellite constellation.

An even bigger worry is that Elon Musk’s SpaceX company looks to be in financial trouble. A recent blog by TMF Associates, a consultant in the satellite industry, provides ample evidence that SpaceX has big financial woes. The company is far behind its original business plan of raising money for rocket launches and is going to spend a lot of resources this year sending up the planned 1,500 Starlink satellites. TMF says that the company is burning through $100 million per month in operating expenses. A more immediate worry for SpaceX and Starlink is the impact of having to send staff home due to COVID-19. What’s going to happen this year in the supply chain for satellites and their components? According to the figures cited by TMF Associates, Elon Musk and Starlink likely must win big dollars out of the RDOF auction just to keep SpaceX afloat.

Just because LEO satellite broadband has big promise is no guarantee that we’ll ever see an iota of bandwidth out of the sky. OneWeb recently declared bankruptcy and blamed COVID-19, but the company was already out of cash before the pandemic. The company needs a buyer to emerge out of the bankruptcy and the company might just evaporate into obscurity.

I have always been hopeful that Starlink can provide decent rural broadband. This might be the only way to get broadband to the most remote customers in the country. But I’ve been troubled that the company has still never made any public claims about the speeds they will be able to deliver after mass launches, or the price they are planning to charge. On March 20, the FCC granted Starlink up to 1 million licenses for earthside connections to the satellite constellation. That does not sound like a network that is going to solve the broadband shortage for tens of millions of rural homes and businesses.

I’ve always guessed that the company hasn’t disclosed any details because the speeds will be unspectacular – at least in terms of attracting the billions of investor dollars needed to complete the satellite constellation. Much of rural America would be thrilled in Starlink can mass-deliver 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps at an affordable price. But those kinds of speeds won’t attract investors and don’t rate a top tier designation for Starlink in the RDOF auction.

If Starlink ends up in the RDOF auction at a top tier designation without the needed public disclosure then Elon Musk will have sold a bill of goods to the FCC – which is badly searching for a big rural broadband win. However, it will be a disaster if most of this money goes to Starlink and they then deliver mediocre speeds, or high prices – or even worse, never fully deploy. There are still plenty of doubters that Starlink and SpaceX can deploy the 6,000 promised satellites for the first constellation, let alone up to 30,000 more that Musk has promised.

My biggest fear is that a lot of the grant money will go to Starlink and they then fizzle or underperform. If so we will have wasted the biggest pile of grant money ever offered to improve rural broadband. Before Starlink grabs billions of taxpayers dollars – money that each of us paid from the fees added to our telephone and cellular bills – the public deserves a full disclosure from Starlink on the realities of their technology, their business plan, and their financial health. Without that they shouldn’t be allowed within 400 miles of the RDOF auction.