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 folks with low incomes via 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 Provider (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 folks with low incomes.

Starlink is in beta and costs $99 per thirty days, plus a one-time charge of $499 for the person 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 person terminals (i.e. satellite tv for pc dishes) and is seeking FCC permission to lift the maximum-deployment stage to five million person terminals.

VoIP plans

Whereas the Starlink beta solely contains broadband, SpaceX mentioned it would finally 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 offered at no further cost to finish customers; (c) entry to emergency providers; and (d) toll limitation providers to qualifying low-income shoppers.”

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

“On this baseline plan, Starlink Providers would supply phone providers connecting shoppers to its MSP’s platform utilizing its community capability, which is offered to shoppers via their buyer premises tools,” the submitting mentioned. “Customers may have the choice of utilizing a third-party, standard cellphone related to a Session Initiation Protocol standards-compliant analog terminal adaptor or a native-IP cellphone chosen from a listing of licensed fashions.”

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

Starlink Providers continues to evaluate integrating various standalone voice functions into the Starlink community, together with different third-party suppliers, or probably creating its personal proprietary answer. The corporate might undertake such approaches within the occasion that additional testing demonstrates various options would supply a superior expertise to the tip buyer or, if Starlink Providers determines the tip person 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 person stage, Starlink Providers will supply a 24-hour battery back-up choice for person tools that can present the power to make cellphone calls within the occasion of an influence outage,” SpaceX mentioned.

The 24-hour backup supply 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 person terminal can deliver broadband with a transportable energy provide.

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

Starlink Providers may have ample back-up energy to stay practical with out an exterior energy supply in emergency conditions, will have the ability to reroute site visitors round broken amenities, and can have the ability to handle site visitors spikes ensuing from emergency conditions… On the system stage, Starlink Providers is constructing redundancy into the community. For instance, each person may have a number of satellites in view with which it could talk. Moreover, each satellite tv for pc may have a number of gateway websites in view with which it could talk. The Starlink site visitors routing system ensures that each person is served with bandwidth earlier than customers demanding extra bandwidth get further throughput assigned, which provides 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 Providers at the moment 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 shoppers and publicize the supply of Lifeline service in a fashion moderately designed to achieve these prone to qualify for the service.”

Lifeline at the moment 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. Based mostly on Starlink’s beta worth of $99 per thirty days, the subsidies wouldn’t be sufficient to make that plan inexpensive for low-income shoppers, so we might anticipate 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 shoppers.

Starlink to be common-carrier service

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

Whether or not broadband needs to 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 so as to implement internet 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 Information, informed Ars.

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

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