Some Problems with the RDOF

The FCC recently published a set of proposed rules for conducting the $20.4 billion broadband grant program it has labeled as the Rural Digital Opportunity Zone (RDOF). While the FCC is to be applauded for redirecting the funding that formerly was used to support the CAF II program, there are still some problems I foresee in the grant program as proposed.

Reverse Auction. Many of my problems come because of the use of a reverse auction. I understand why politicians and policymakers like this idea. The general concept that those willing to take the least amount of subsidy get the funding somehow sounds fair, but a reverse auction is not going to result in the best use of these funds to bring permanent broadband solutions to rural America:

  • Favors Those Who Don’t Need the Money. We saw this in the CAF II reverse auction where satellite broadband won a significant amount of funding. This time around there’s a good chance that a large amount of grant money might go to Elon Musk’s Starlink and the other low orbit satellite providers. By definition, for satellite technology to work they have to cover everywhere – and so they are going to be launching the satellites anyway without subsidy. These companies can easily be the low bidders because getting anything out of the grant fund is still a great result for them. As we going to be happy of the result of the reverse auction results in billions of dollars handed to Elon Musk?
  • Favors Lowest Cost Technology. By definition, those planning to spend less per customer to bring broadband can take accept money from the grants and still be happy. This means the grants will favor solutions the big telcos again tweaking DSL over ancient copper if they choose to participate. This would allow AT&T and Verizon to grab a lot of money to support rural cellular upgrades. While the FCC is planning to weight the bidding to promote faster technologies like fiber, if the weighting isn’t done right, then the funding will automatically favor lower-cost yet slower technologies. Maybe that’s what the FCC wants – to bring some broadband solution to the largest number of people – but the best policy is to bring a permanent broadband solution to a smaller subset of areas.
  • Discriminates Against High Cost Areas. The areas that need broadband the most are where it costs the most to build any infrastructure. Areas like Appalachia and Alaska are high cost because of topology, and anybody applying for grants in these areas likely can’t afford to reduce the percentage of grant funding their receive. The entire concept of reverse auction, by definition, favors parts of the country with the lowest construction costs. Applicants in the wide-open plains of the Midwest have a built-in advantage.

The Sheer Size of the One-Time Award. The grant awards are likely to be about a year away. I wonder if there will be enough ISPs ready to bid in that short time frame? Bidders need to develop an engineering estimate and business plan of sufficient quality to also attract financing. If there are not enough ISPs able to be ready for the auction in that time frame, even more of the money is likely to flow to big companies like the satellite providers who would be glad to take the whole pot of funding. A better plan would have been to break this into several grant years and award some 10-year grants, some 9-year grants, and some 8-year grants.

No Real Penalties for Cheating. Companies don’t get penalized much for lying about the speeds they can deliver. We saw a few wireless providers in the CAF II reverse auction claim they can deliver 100 Mbps broadband to everybody. Unless somebody develops that technology in the next 2-3 years they are going to deliver something less, at least to a large percentage of their coverage area. If a company gets a bidding credit by making a false claim, they should lose all of their funding and have to repay the FCC. The proposed penalties are not much more than a slap on the wrist and encourage companies to claim faster speeds than they can deliver.

Likely Excludes Some Bidders. The rules still seem to exclude entities that can’t get Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status – a regulatory designation required to get money from the Universal Service Fund – a status only available to entities that own the network, and which are also the retail ISP. This would preclude entities like the PUDs, the rural municipal electric companies in Washington that are required by law to operate open access networks. It also could preclude certain kinds of partnerships where the retail ISP is different than the network owner – an arrangement we’re seeing a lot in partnerships between telcos and electric cooperatives. Anybody willing to invest in rural broadband should be eligible to participate.

More Details on Starlink

A few months ago Starlink, the satellite broadband company founded by Elon Musk, launched 60 broadband satellites. Since that launch, we’ve learned a few more things about the secretive venture.

We now know more details about the satellites. Each one weighs about 500 pounds. They are thin rectangular boxes like a flat-panel TV. Much of the surface is a solar panel, and each satellite also extends a second solar panel.

Each satellite comes with a krypton-powered ion thruster to use to navigate the satellite into initial orbit and to avoid future debris when necessary. This may sound like a cutting-edge propulsion system, but it’s been around for many years and the tiny engines create a small amount of thrust by shooting out charged ions of the noble gas – not a lot of thrust is needed to move a 500-pound satellite.

It seems the satellites can’t detect nearby space debris, so Starlink instead connects to the Air Force’s Combined Space Operations Center, which tracks the trajectories of all known space debris. The company will direct satellites to avoid known debris.

Probably the most important announcement for readers of this blog is that the company is likely to only compete in rural areas where there are few other broadband alternatives. This was finally admitted by Musk. There has been hopeful speculation in some parts of the industry that the low-orbit satellites would provide a broadband alternative everywhere, thus supplying a new competitor for cable companies. Since widespread competition generally results in lower prices there was hope that satellite broadband would act to make the whole broadband market more competitive.

We already had an inkling that satellite broadband was going to be rural-only when OneWeb, one of the competitors to Starlink, told the FCC that they were likely going to ultimately need about like 1 million wireless licenses for receivers. While that might sound like a huge number, one million satellite connections spread across the US is not creating a major competitor. We also heard the same message when several of the satellite companies talked about eventually having tens of millions of customers worldwide at maturity. Even with multiple satellite companies competing for customers there probably won’t be more than 3 – 4 million satellite broadband customers in the US – that would make a dent but wouldn’t fix the rural broadband gap. This strategy makes sense for the satellite companies since they’ll be able to charge a premium price for rural customers who have no broadband alternative instead of cutting prices to compete with cable companies.

There has still been no discussion from Starlink or the other competitors on broadband speeds or broadband pricing. It’s been nearly impossible to predict the impact of the satellites without understanding data speeds and total download capacity. The physics suggest that backhaul to the satellites will be the critical limiting factor, so it’s possible that there will be monthly data caps or some other way to control consumption.

One of the most interesting unanswered questions is how the satellites will do backhaul. Landline ISPs of any size today control cost and control data volumes by directly peering with the largest sources of broadband demand – being mostly Netflix, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. As much as 70% of the traffic headed to an ISP is from this handful of destinations. Engineers are wondering how Starlink will handle peering. Will there be backhaul between satellites or will each satellite have a dedicated link to the ground for all data usage? This is a key question when a satellite is passing over a remote area – will it try to find a place within sight of the satellite to connect to the Internet or will data instead be passed between satellite with connections only at a major hub?

Answering that question is harder than might be imagined because these satellites are not stationary. Each satellite continuously orbits the earth and so a given customer will be handed off from one satellite to the next as satellites pass out of the visible horizon. The company says the receivers are about the size of a pizza box and they are not aimed at a given satellite, like what happens with satellite TV – instead, each receiver just has to be generally aimed skyward. It’s hard to think that there won’t be issues for homes living in heavy wooded areas.

One last interesting tidbit is that the satellites are visible to the naked eye. When the recent launch was first completed it was easy to spot the string of 60 satellites before they were dispersed. Astronomers are wondering what this will mean when there are ten thousand satellites filling the sky from the various providers. Elon Musk says he’s working to reduce albedo (the reflection of sunlight) to reduce any problems this might cause with land-based astronomy. But for stargazers this means there will always be multiple visible satellites crossing the sky.

The Impact of Satellite Broadband

Recently I’ve had several people ask me about the expected impact of low-orbit satellite broadband. While significant competition from satellites is probably a number of years away, there are several major initiatives like StarLink (Elon Musk), Project Kuiper (Amazon), and OneWeb that have announced plans to launch swarms of satellites to provide broadband.

At this early stage, it’s nearly impossible to know what impact these companies might have. We don’t know anything about their download and speed capacity, their pricing strategy, or their targeted market so it’s impossible to begin to predict their impact. We don’t even know how long it’s going to take to get these satellites in space since these three companies alone have plans to launch over 10,000 new satellites – a tall task when compared to the 1,100 satellites currently active in space.

Even without knowing any of these key facts, BroadbandNow recently grabbed headlines around the industry by predicting that low-orbit satellites will bring an annual savings of $30 billion for US broadband customers. Being a numbers guy, I never let this kind of headline pass without doing some quick math.

They explain their method of calculation on their web site. They are making several major assumptions about the satellite industry. First, they assume the satellite providers will compete on price and will compete in every market in the country. Since the vast majority of American live in metro areas, BroadbandNow is assuming the satellite providers will become a major competitor in every city. They also assume that the satellites will be able to connect to a huge number of customers in the US which will force other ISPs to lower prices.

Those assumptions would have to be true to support the $30 billion in projected annual consumer savings. That is an extraordinary number and works out to be a savings of almost $20 per month for every household in the US. If you spread the $30 billion over only those households that buy broadband today, that would be a savings of over $23 per month. If your further factor out the folks who live in large apartments and don’t get a choice of their ISP, the savings jumps to $27 per household per month. The only way to realize savings of that magnitude would be from a no-holds-barred broadband price war where the satellite providers are chewing into market penetrations everywhere.

I foresee a different future for the satellite industry. Let’s start with a few facts we know. While 10,000 satellites is an impressive number, that’s a worldwide number and there will be fewer than 1,000 satellites over the US. Most of the satellites are tiny – these are not the same as the huge satellites launched by HughesNet. Starlink has described their satellites as varying in size between a football and a small dorm refrigerator. At those small sizes these satellites are probably the electronic equivalent of the OLT cabinets used as neighborhood nodes in a FTTH network – each satellite will likely support some limited and defined number of customers. OneWeb recently told the FCC in a spectrum docket that they are envisioning needing one million radio links, meaning their US satellites would be able to serve one million households. Let’s say that all of the satellite providers together will serve 3 – 5 million homes in the US – that’s an impressive number, but it’s not going to drive other ISPs into a pricing panic.

I also guess that the satellite providers will not offer cheap prices – they don’t need to. In fact, I expect them to charge more than urban ISPs. The satellite providers will have one huge market advantage – the ability to bring broadband where there isn’t landline competition. The satellite providers can likely use all of their capacity selling only in rural America at a premium price.

We still have no real idea about the speeds that will be available with low-orbit satellite broadband. We can ignore Elon Musk who claims he’ll be offering gigabit speeds. The engineering specs show that a satellite can probably make a gigabit connection, but each satellite is an ISP hub and will have a limited bandwidth capacity. Like with any ISP network, the operator can use that capacity to make a few connections at a high bandwidth speed or many more connections at slower speeds. Engineering common sense would predict against using the limited satellite bandwidth to sell gigabit residential products.

That doesn’t mean the satellite providers won’t be lured by big bandwidth customers. They might make more money selling gigabit links at a premium price to small cell sites and ignoring the residential market completely. It’s a much easier business plan, with drastically lower operating costs to sell their capacity to a handful of big cellular companies instead of selling to millions of households. That is going to be a really tempting market alternative.

I could be wrong and maybe the satellite guys will find a way to sell many tens of millions of residential links and compete in every market, in which case they would have an impact on urban broadband prices. But unless the satellites have the capacity to sell to almost everybody, and unless they decide to compete on price, I still can’t see a way to ever see a $30 billion national savings. I instead see them making good margins by selling where there’s no competition.

AT&T and Connected Vehicles

AT&T just released a blog talking about their connected vehicle product. This blog paints a picture of where AT&T is at today and where they hope to be headed into the future in this market niche.

For a company like AT&T, the only reason to be excited about a new market niche is the creation of a new revenue stream. AT&T claims to have 24 million connected cars on its network as of the end of 3Q 2018. They also claim 3 million additional connected fleet vehicles. They also have over 1 million customers who are buying mobile WiFi hotspots from AT&T.

What does that look like as a revenue stream? AT&T has relationships with 29 global car manufacturers. Most new cars today come with some kind of connectivity plan that’s free to a car buyer for a short time, usually 3 to 6 months. When the free trial is over consumers must subscribe in order to retain the connectivity service.

As an example of how this works, all new Buicks and Fiats come with AT&T’s UConnect Access for a 6-month free trial period. This service provides unlimited broadband to the vehicle for streaming video or for feeding the on-board mapping system. After the trial customers must subscribe to the service at a monthly rate of $14.99 per month – or they can buy a la carte for connectivity at $9.99 per day or $34.99 per month.

In the blog AT&T touts a relationship with Subaru. The company provides a trial subscription to Starlink that provides on-board navigation on a screen plus safety features like the ability to call for roadside assistance or to locate a stolen vehicle. Subaru offers different plans for different vehicles that range from a Starlink trial of between 4-months and 3-years. Once the trial is over the cost of extending Starlink is $49 for the first year and then $99 per year to extend just the security package or $149 per year to extend the whole service. Starlink is not part of AT&T, so only some portion of this revenue goes to the carrier.

I wonder how many people extend these free trials and become paying customers? I have to think that the majority of the AT&T connected vehicles are under the Starlink relationship which has been around for many years. Families that drive a lot and watch a lot of video in a vehicle might find the UConnect Access to be a much better alternative than using cellular data plans. People who want the feature of locating their car if stolen might like the Starlink. However, most drivers probably don’t see a value in these plans. Most of the features offered in these packages are available as part of everybody’s cellular data plans using the Bluetooth connectivity in these vehicles.

The vehicle fleet business, however, is intriguing. Companies can use this connectivity to keep drivers connected to the home office and core software systems. This can also be done with cellphones, but I can think of several benefits to building this directly into the vehicle.

The second half of their blog discusses the possibility for 5G and automated cars. That’s the future revenue stream the company is banking on, and probably one of their biggest hopes for 5G. They have two hopes for 5G vehicle connectivity:

  • They hope to provide the connectivity between vehicles using 5G and the cloud. They believe that cars will be connected to the 5G network in order to ‘learn’ from other vehicle’s driving experience in the immediate vicinity.
  • They also hope to eventually provide broadband to driverless cars where passengers will be interested in being connected while traveling.

The first application of connecting nearby vehicles is no guarantee. It all depends on the technology path chosen to power driverless vehicles. There is one school of thought that says that the majority of the brains and decision making will be done by on-board computers, and if cars connect to nearby vehicles it will be through the use of on-board wireless communication. AT&T is hoping for the alternate approach where that connectivity is done in the cloud – but that’s going to require a massive investment in small cell sites everywhere. If the cloud solution is not the preferred technology then companies like AT&T will have no incentive to place 5G cell sites along the millions of miles of roads.

This is one of those chicken and egg situations. I liken it to smart city technology. A decade ago many predicted that cities would need mountains of fiber to support smart cities – but today most such applications are being done wirelessly. Any company banking on a fiber-based solution got left behind. At this point, nobody can predict the technology that will ultimately be used by smart cars. However, since the 5G technology needs the deployment of a massive ubiquitous cellular network, the simpler solution is to do it some other way.

Delays in Satellite Broadband

One of the big unknowns for rural broadband is if there will ever be a better satellite broadband option. The industry was surprised last year when Elon Musk announced that he planned to blanket the earth with over 4,000 satellites and operate as a worldwide ISP under the newly formed Starlink. These satellites would be launched by SpaceX, another Elon Musk company that that provides commercial rocket launches.

I’ve been following the financial news about the Elon Musk family of businesses, and about SpaceX and Starlink more specifically, since a successful launch of the business could provide another rural option for broadband.

There are several financial analysts predicting that Starlink is now largely on hold, due mostly to funding issues. They report that Starlink has stopped hiring the new employees needed to implement the business plan. Further, it appears that SpaceX needs up to $10 billion to fulfill its own business plan and that any money raised by the company is likely to go there first before Starlink is funded. At a minimum this probably means a major delay in satellite launches for Starlink.

These analysts warn that the SpaceX business plan is not yet solid. The commercial launch business is now seeing other major competitors. ULA, the existing major competitor to SpaceX has been stepping up their game. Boeing is behind Space Launch Systems, another newcomer to the field. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has started Blue Origin and has started construction on a spaceflight center in Florida. There is also a new competitor announced in Japan. The competition is going to drive down the cost of space launches and will also spread the launches among numerous parties, diluting any early advantage enjoyed by SpaceX.

SpaceX was counting on riding the coattails of other commercial launches to get the broadband satellites into space. The company is scheduled to complete 28 launches by the end of this year but is only scheduled so far for 18 launches in 2019. The company is also banking on making money from selling commercial space travel to rich tourists, but the analysts doubt that will be enough revenue to keep the company afloat.

Starlink had originally announced plans to have 40 million broadband subscribers generating $30 billion in annual revenues by 2025. That’s an average revenue per customer of $63 dollars per month. It now looks like the date for getting the company started will be significantly delayed. Starlink launched two test satellites earlier this year, but has not reported how they performed.

I’ve also wondered if Starlink would strongly pursue the residential broadband business in North America. While they will be a great alternative for rural America, they will be just another player in cities. Being an ISP makes a lot more sense in those parts of the world where the company could enjoy a near-monopoly.

In the US and Canada there is probably a lot more money to be made instead by serving the many proposed small cell sites if 5G turns out to be a relevant business plan. Starlink says they can deliver speeds of a gigabit or more to a given customer, but the math behind the bandwidth available at any given satellite means that would only be available to a relatively small number of customers rather than to the whole residential market. Speeds for residential broadband are likely to be at much lower speeds. However, gigabit satellite broadband could be the backhaul solution that 5G needs and might let it escape the bottleneck of needing fiber everywhere. I’ve never seen any discussion of such a partnership, but that’s probably because the satellite business is still somewhat theoretical and at a minimum, delayed from the original projected time line.

Edging Closer to Satellite Broadband

A few weeks ago Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched two test satellites that are the first in a planned low-orbit satellite network that will blanket the earth with broadband. The eventual network, branded as Starlink, will consist of 4,425 satellites deployed at 700 miles above earth and another 7,518 deployed at around 210 miles of altitude.

Getting that many satellites into orbit is a daunting logistical task. To put this into perspective, the nearly 12,000 satellites needed are twice the number of satellites that have been launched in history. It’s going to take a lot of launches to get these into the sky. SpaceX’s workhorse rocket the Falcon 9 can carry about ten satellites at a time. They also have tested a Falcon Heavy system that could carry 20 or so satellites at a time. If they can make a weekly launch of the larger rocket that’s still 596 launches and would take 11.5 years. To put that number into perspective, the US led the world with 29 successful satellite launches last year, with Russia second with 21 and China with 16.

SpaceX is still touting this as a network that can make gigabit connections to customers. I’ve read the FCC filing for the proposed network several times and it looks to me like that kind of speed will require combining signals from multiple satellites to a single customer and I have to wonder if that’s practical when talking about deploying this networks to tens of millions of simultaneous subscribers. It’s likely that their standard bandwidth offering is going to be something significantly less.

There is also a big question to me about the capacity of the backhaul network that carry signal to and from the satellites. It’s going to take some major bandwidth to handle the volume of broadband users that SpaceX has in mind. We are seeing landline long-haul fiber networks today that are stressed and reaching capacity. The satellite network will face the same backhaul problems as everybody else and will have to find ways to cope with a world where broadband demand doubles every 3 years or so. If the satellite backhaul gets clogged or if the satellites get over-subscribed then the quality of broadband will degrade like with any other network.

Interestingly, SpaceX is not the only one chasing this business plan. For instance, billionaire Richard Branson wants to build a similar network that would put 720 low-orbit satellites over North America. Telesat has launched two different test satellites and also want to deploy a large satellite network. Boeing also announced intentions to launch a 1,000-satellite network over North America. It’s sounding like our skies are going to get pretty full!

SpaceX is still predicting that the network is going to cost roughly $10 billion to deploy. There’s been no talk of consumer prices yet, but the company obviously has a business plan – Musk want to use this business as the primary way to fund the colonization of Mars. But pricing is an issue for a number of reasons. The satellites will have some finite capacity for customer connections. In one of the many articles I read I saw the goal for the network is 40 million customers (and I don’t know if that’s the right number, but there is some number of simultaneous connections the network can handle). 40 million customers sounds huge, but with a current worldwide population of over 7.6 billion people it’s miniscule for a worldwide market.

There are those predicting that this will be the salvation for rural broadband. But I think that’s going to depend on pricing. If this is priced affordably then there will be millions in cities who would love to escape the cable company monopoly, and who could overwhelm the satellite network. There is also the issue of local demand. Only a limited number of satellites can see any given slice of geography. The network might easily accommodate everybody in Wyoming or Alaska, but won’t be able to do the same anywhere close to a big city.

Another issue is worldwide pricing. A price that might be right in the US might be ten times higher than what will be affordable in Africa or Asia. So there is bound to be pricing differences based upon regional incomes.

One of the stickier issues will be the reaction of governments that don’t want citizens using the network. There is no way China is going to let citizens bypass the great firewall of China by going through these satellites. Repressive regimes like North Kora will likely make it illegal to use the network. And even democratic countries like India might not like the idea – last year they turned down free Internet from Facebook because it wasn’t an ‘Indian’ solution.

Bottom line is that this is an intriguing idea. If the technology works as promised, and if Musk can find the money and can figure out the logistics to get this launched it’s going to be another new source of broadband. But satellite networks are not going to solve the world’s broadband problems because they are only going to be able to help some small limited percentage of the world’s population. But with that said, a remote farm in the US or a village in Africa is going to love this when it’s available.