Add the Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA to the list of entities that don't think Starlink will be able to live up to its RDOF awards to deploy broadband in unserved rural areas across the U.S.
In December, SpaceX's Starlink won $885.5 million of the $9.2 billion in broadband subsidies the FCC awarded carriers in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase 1 reverse auction. Specifically, SpaceX's awards are across 642,925 locations in 35 states. The first phase of the RDOF is targeted census blocks that are wholly unserved with fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.
Near the end of last month, the auction winners filled out their required Long Form 683 Applications in regards to how they planned to deploy their respective services, which includes fiber-to-the-home, fixed wireless and, in the case of SpaceX, low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellite broadband access technologies.
On Monday, the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association submitted to the FCC a technical assessment and model in regards to the prospects of LEO networks meeting the RDOF requirements for rural broadband.
The sample analysis conducted by Cartesian, which was based upon current publicly available information, estimated that Starlink would face a capacity shortfall by 2028 and that more than 56% of Starlink’s RDOF subscribers would not be fully served.
"Through this analysis, the Cartesian paper provides a roadmap for the FCC to evaluate more information as it becomes available and to verify ultimately whether the network will in fact perform as promised in the RDOF auction," the NTCA and the FBA said in Monday's press release.
The FBA and NTCA said the sample analysis conducted on Starlink's technology was based on Starlink’s RDOF commitment and reported fleet specifications. Anticipated peak broadband usage demands were calculated through the year 2030 and using "optimistic network conditions" the research showed that Starlink could fail to provide enough bandwidth to over half of all its subscribers during peak usage hours.
Further, "the analysis indicates that additional states with RDOF locations awarded to Starlink will not achieve the required obligations if these satellites were to serve non-RDOF commercial subscribers."
NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications in rural communities across the U.S. The NTCA members would compete against Starlink's service in some areas of its footprint.
The FBA and NTCA aren't the only entities to voice skepticism that Starlink and some of the other Phase 1 winners won't be able to meet their RDOF obligations. Last week, Windstream CEO Tony Thomas said in an interview with FierceTelecom that he didn't think some of the winning bidders would be able to meet their RDOF commitments because they weren't relying on fiber-to-the-home deployments.
"I think the ultimate outcome of this auction is still very much open," Thomas said, "and I think that'll play out over the next several years to see if these other winners will be able to meet the considerable commitments they made when they filled out that Long Form last Friday."
A bi-partisan group of 158 congressmen recently sent a letter to the FCC, asking it to “thoroughly vet the winning bidders” of the first phase of the RDOF auction “to ensure that they are capable of deploying and delivering the services they committed to providing.”
“Our goal with our latest FCC filing is to provide tools and technical analysis that will support more indicative assessments of incipient technologies so that the agency can ensure that RDOF winners can deliver the broadband performance promised," said Gary Bolton, President and CEO at the Fiber Broadband Association, in a statement.
NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said in her statement that steps must be taken to ensure that the RDOF auction delivers on its promise of rural broadband in unserved areas, and "that winning bidders will deliver more specifically on their own promises to rural America."
“NTCA called upon the FCC to vet bidders more thoroughly before the auction given the stakes," Bloomfield added in her statement. "This did not happen, making it all the more important now to examine carefully each bidder’s ability to perform. If each winning bidder performs as promised, only then can we declare the auction a success. We must do the hard work today to confirm capabilities rather than discovering any issues only years from."
SpaceX/Starlink didn't respond to an email from FierceTelecom in regards to the FBA and NTCA's technical assessment that was sent to the FCC.
Last week, Elon Musk's SpaceX said in a filing with the FCC that more than 10,000 subscribers in the U.S. and abroad were getting their internet service from its LEO satellites. In October, Starlink launched a beta version of its broadband service that costs $99 per month. Customers also have to pay $499 for the required equipment and installs.