SpaceX will have to demonstrate Starlink internet's low latency within the next month to qualify for up to $16B in federal funding

Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is in the process of building out its Starlink network of low-Earth orbit small satellites that will provide the backbone of a global, high-bandwidth, low-latency internet service — but there's a clock running out in terms of at least one potential source of funding for it to recoup revenue from those efforts. The FCC requires that anyone participating in its $16 billion federal funding auction for rural broadband access demonstrate latency under 100 milliseconds, but anyone who hopes to qualify must meet that threshold within the next month.

The FCC has issued a report (via Engadget) on the Phase 1 auction for this lucrative funding, serving as advance notice ahead of its actual auction date of October 29, 2020 — but companies have to submit their applications to compete for said auction by July 15. In the report. the FCC acknowledges that any satellite provider operating at LEO has a potential advantage over providers who are using much higher altitude, geostationary satellites instead, but also qualifies that by noting that in order to pass the stated threshold they must also pass it taking into account delays introduced by relay stations, hubs and destination terminals.

SpaceX, for its part, believes that the FCC needn't doubt its network's abilities, and says that in fact it's aiming for latency times under the 20 millisecond mark, which is better in some cases than traditional terrestrial cable-backed bandwidth networks.

In terms of deployment, SpaceX has been moving fast with Starlink, especially in 2020. Thus far, it has launched seven missions this year for the constellation, sending up a total of 418 satellites — which is actually more than any other private satellite operator even has currently working. The sprint is about building the network to the point where it can begin to serve customers in the U.S. and Canada by sometime later this year, and then expand to more customers globally later on.

SpaceX seems to be on track to make that happen, but the requirements for this more lucrative tranche of government funding might be too soon relative to those goals. Still, there are other federal contracts related to this initiative that it would be eligible for later on.

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