Viasat wants FCC to review government funding for Starlink

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TAMPA, Fla .– Satellite operator Viasat is stepping up efforts to stop the growing constellation of Starlink, targeting the nearly $ 900 million in rural broadband grants SpaceX won in December.

The operator asks the Federal Communications Commission to review the decisions taken around the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), citing differential treatment and a lack of transparency.

In a request for reconsideration (AFR) filed on June 1, Viasat calls on the regulator to investigate a series of decisions related to tenders to provide low latency internet service under phase 1 of the RDOF, also known under the auction name 904.

Viasat initially filed its AFR with the FCC on January 29, on a confidential basis, to examine why it was not allowed to bid for grants with its proposed low-earth orbit constellation, although it already operates satellites at broadband in geostationary orbit.

Mark Dankberg, co-founder and executive chairman of Viasat, describes a LEO constellation nearly 300 satellites in May 2020, operating higher than Starlink’s current network at 1,300 kilometers. SpaceX currently operates more than 1,600 Starlink satellites approximately 550 kilometers away, where it is licensed to deploy approximately 4,400 in total.

According to Viasat, the decisions made by the FCC’s Rural Auction Task Force, the Bureau of Economics and Analysis and the Wireline Competition Bureau “unduly discriminate against Viasat and call him a fundamentally different way from “SpaceX.

In a June 1 letter to Acting FCC President Jessica Rosenworcel, Viasat added that “this disparate treatment continued after the end of” the RDOF Phase 1 auction.

“Among other things, the Bureaux suggested that there is an overarching need for transparency with regard to the Commission’s ongoing review of whether Viasat was in fact eligible to participate in the 904 auction and ultimately gain support. RDOF, ”he writes.

“However, the bureaus have apparently abandoned their commitment to transparency in the case of SpaceX – which is set to receive around $ 885 million in RDOF support even though there are significant doubts about its ability to meet its obligations. RDOF performance. “

In a separate document filed with the FCC on June 1, a detailed analysis of Viasat indicates that Starlink will not be able to respond to the coverage and capacity commitments that SpaceX has made to obtain RDOF funding.

Viasat cited suggestions from SpaceX that advancements in technology will allow it to overcome any glitches, but said relying on unproven upgrades conflicts with the FCC’s RDOF framework.

SpaceX was unable to comment until this article was posted.

SpaceX’s share of the total $ 9.2 billion awarded in the RDOF Phase 1 auction was one of the largest among the 180 successful bidders. Hughes Network Systems was the only other satellite supplier to win funds from the auction, raising less than $ 1.3 million.

RDOF Phase 1 grants will be distributed to successful bidders over the next 10 years to connect approximately 5.2 million unserved homes and businesses to broadband in rural areas of the United States. As part of SpaceX’s Phase 1 commitments, Starlink is expected to provide high-speed Internet services to nearly 643,000 homes and businesses in 35 states.

We believe that the FCC has not acted with full transparency or fairness and has applied fundamentally different standards to satellite operators in the same situation, ”said John Janka, director of government and regulatory affairs for Viasat, in a statement. press release sent by email.

“We believe it is reasonable to expect US government agencies to uphold the highest principles and provide competitive parity, especially in a program that will distribute billions of taxpayer dollars. . ”

Shutdown for environmental reasons

Viasat is expected to appear in court on June 2 in an effort prevent SpaceX from launching more Starlink satellites for environmental reasons.

The Carlsbad, California-based company recently gave the FCC until the end of June 1 to suspend an April 27 license amendment, which allowed SpaceX to continue building the constellation at an altitude of about 550 kilometers.

If the FCC does not grant a stay order, Viasat intends to seek one from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

This is the same court where Viasat intends to argue that the FCC was legally obligated to thoroughly assess Starlink’s environmental impact before approving the license amendment.

Five days after Viasat called on the FCC on May 21 to suspend Starlink’s license amendment, SpaceX launched another batch of 60 satellites to extend the constellation to 550 kilometers.

Prior to the change, SpaceX was only allowed to operate 1,584 satellites at 550 kilometers, with the permission of 2,825 others in orbits from 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers.

The change reduces Starlink’s signal lag for video calls, games, and other latency-critical applications because there is less distance between satellites in space and antennas on the ground.

* Update June 3 *

Viasat filed its motion to stay the FCC order, pending judicial review, with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at the end of June 2.

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