SpaceX plans Starlink cellphone service, emergency backup, and low-income entry

A stack of 60 Starlink satellites being launched into space, with Earth in the background.
Enlarge / A stack of 60 Starlink satellites launched in 2019.

A brand new SpaceX submitting outlines plans for Starlink to supply cellphone service, emergency backup for voice calls, and cheaper plans for individuals with low incomes by the federal government’s Lifeline program.

The main points are in Starlink’s petition to the Federal Communications Fee for designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Service (ETC) underneath the Communications Act. SpaceX mentioned it wants that legal designation in among the states the place it won government funding to deploy broadband in unserved areas. The ETC designation can also be wanted to get reimbursement from the FCC’s Lifeline program for providing reductions on telecom service to individuals with low incomes.

Starlink is in beta and costs $99 per thirty days, plus a one-time price of $499 for the consumer terminal, mounting tripod, and router. As we noted yesterday, the SpaceX submitting additionally says Starlink now has over 10,000 customers within the US and overseas. SpaceX ought to have capability for a number of million prospects within the US—the corporate has permission to deploy as much as 1 million consumer terminals (i.e. satellite tv for pc dishes) and is seeking FCC permission to lift the maximum-deployment stage to five million consumer terminals.

VoIP plans

Whereas the Starlink beta solely consists of broadband, SpaceX mentioned it can ultimately promote VoIP service that features “(a) voice-grade entry to the general public switched phone community (‘PSTN’) or its practical equal; (b) minutes of use for native service supplied at no extra cost to finish customers; (c) entry to emergency companies; and (d) toll limitation companies to qualifying low-income customers.”

Voice service might be offered “on a standalone foundation at charges which can be moderately similar to city charges,” SpaceX mentioned. The plan is not finalized, however SpaceX mentioned it’s exploring the usage of “a white-label managed service supplier (MSP) voice platform.”

“On this baseline plan, Starlink Companies would offer phone companies connecting customers to its MSP’s platform utilizing its community capability, which is out there to customers by their buyer premises tools,” the submitting mentioned. “Shoppers could have the choice of utilizing a third-party, typical cellphone linked to a Session Initiation Protocol standards-compliant analog terminal adaptor or a native-IP cellphone chosen from an inventory of licensed fashions.”

SpaceX mentioned it’s also exploring different phone-service choices:

Starlink Companies continues to evaluate integrating various standalone voice functions into the Starlink community, together with different third-party suppliers, or presumably creating its personal proprietary resolution. The corporate might undertake such approaches within the occasion that additional testing demonstrates various options would offer a superior expertise to the tip buyer or, if Starlink Companies determines the tip consumer would profit from the existence of a number of voice options to introduce competitors and redundancy into the provision chain.

Emergency backup

Like different VoIP suppliers, Starlink would promote a 24-hour battery backup to prospects who need it. “On the consumer stage, Starlink Companies will provide a 24-hour battery back-up choice for consumer tools that may present the power to make cellphone calls within the occasion of an influence outage,” SpaceX mentioned.

The 24-hour backup provide would fulfill an FCC rule handed in 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. Although the backup choice described in SpaceX’s submitting applies to cellphone service, we have seen from the Starlink beta that the consumer terminal can deliver broadband with a conveyable energy provide.

SpaceX’s submitting additionally detailed backup and redundancy plans on the community stage:

Starlink Companies could have adequate back-up energy to stay practical with out an exterior energy supply in emergency conditions, will have the ability to reroute visitors round broken services, and can have the ability to handle visitors spikes ensuing from emergency conditions… On the system stage, Starlink Companies is constructing redundancy into the community. For instance, each consumer could have a number of satellites in view with which it might probably talk. Moreover, each satellite tv for pc could have a number of gateway websites in view with which it might probably talk. The Starlink visitors routing system ensures that each consumer is served with bandwidth earlier than customers demanding extra bandwidth get extra throughput assigned, which supplies the Starlink community robustness within the occasion of emergencies requiring excessive throughput.

Lifeline

SpaceX did not present a lot element on its Lifeline plans past the truth that it intends to supply them.

“Starlink Companies at present has no Lifeline prospects as a result of solely carriers designated as an ETC can take part within the Lifeline program,” the corporate mentioned. However as soon as it will get the ETC designation, SpaceX mentioned it “will present Lifeline to qualifying low-income customers and publicize the provision of Lifeline service in a way moderately designed to succeed in these prone to qualify for the service.”

Lifeline at present supplies a $9.25 monthly subsidy for low-income households to get broadband or a $5.25 month-to-month per-household subsidy for cellphone service. Primarily based on Starlink’s beta worth of $99 per thirty days, the subsidies wouldn’t be sufficient to make that plan inexpensive for low-income customers, so we would count on SpaceX to supply different, cheaper plans to prospects who meet the low-income necessities. With Lifeline, every supplier seeks reimbursement from the fund after offering service to eligible customers.

Starlink to be common-carrier service

SpaceX’s submitting additionally mentioned that Starlink broadband and cellphone might be provided as common-carrier companies. “For functions of this [ETC] designation, Starlink Companies will present broadband Web entry service and standalone voice service to the general public all through the Service Areas on a typical service foundation,” the submitting mentioned.

Whether or not broadband must be regulated as a common-carrier service has been a partisan battle. The Obama-era FCC classified ISPs as common carriers underneath Title II of the Communications Act as a way to implement web neutrality guidelines, and the Trump-era FCC reversed that classification. Broadband foyer teams bitterly opposed the Title II classification.

“The FCC permits carriers to supply broadband on a common-carrier foundation in the event that they so want,” Harold Feld, a longtime telecom lawyer and senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Data, informed Ars.

SpaceX taking over the common-carrier classification as a part of its plan to be an ETC and settle for authorities funding does not essentially have any main significance. Nonetheless, Feld mentioned, “It means that [SpaceX is] unlikely to combat in opposition to Title II classification. Ideally, they could even assist Title II. However at a minimal, this demonstrates that they do not suppose Title II frequent carriage is a few form of horrible burden that may forestall them from providing service.”

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