aerospace astronomy FCC Hughes OneWeb RDOF spacex Telesat Viasat

Hughes views OneWeb stake as key to FCC broadband subsidies

WASHINGTON — Hughes Network Systems believes it has a chance at winning some of the $20.4 billion in rural broadband subsidies the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is preparing to spend, thanks to the company’s recent investment in megaconstellation startup OneWeb. 

The FCC will evaluate satellite internet alongside fiber and other broadband delivery methods in October for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidies meant to finance infrastructure to connect millions of homes and small businesses across the country. The program favors lag-free, high capacity services, a preference that has led satellite operators to offer low-Earth-orbit (LEO) connections in their efforts to win funding. 

Pradman Kaul, Hughes president, said the company’s $50 million investment into OneWeb, announced last month, has cleared a path for Hughes to offer LEO broadband for the FCC program. 

Hughes, like rival Viasat, remains convinced that geostationary satellites can beam internet less expensively and with higher throughputs than LEO constellations. But the FCC’s emphasis on latency drove the company to offer a LEO solution anyway.

“Although GEO has the economic advantage over LEOs in the rural low-density markets, the RDOF market program could potentially subsidize a LEO service offering due to the latency rules,” Kaul said during an Aug. 6 earnings call. “Based on our recent announcement, we have the opportunity now to augment our GEO offerings with OneWeb capacity and have more favorable positioning for RDOF funding.”

OneWeb, with 74 of a planned 650 satellites in orbit, cannot yet provide service, and is still being purchased out of bankruptcy by the British government and Indian telecommunications giant Bharti Global. The megaconstellation company’s new backers have pledged $1 billion to revive the company, in addition to Hughes’ $50 million stake. OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus Defence and Space tasked with building the OneWeb megaconstellation, has continued to build satellites through the bankruptcy of its co-owner and largest customer. 

Hughes and OneWeb will compete for RDOF funds against Viasat, which in May outlined a 288-satellite LEO constellation to the FCC as a means to participate in the subsidy program. 

Canadian satellite operator Telesat, which is planning a constellation of 300 LEO internet satellites, has urged the FCC to consider its future system for RDOF funds, as has SpaceX for Starlink, which has around 600 of an initial 4,400 satellites in orbit.

Kaul, during the earnings call, said he expects the majority of the FCC’s RDOF funding will go toward deploying fiber and, to a lesser extent, fixed wireless in rural areas with appreciable population densities. A “modest” amount of funding will likely go to the more sparsely populated geographies Hughes pursues for customers, he said. 

RDOF aside, Kaul said Hughes expects hybrid networks comprised of satellites in different orbits to become the industry norm as more operators diversify from GEO. 

“In this hybrid structure, LEOs can deliver ubiquitous coverage and low latency, while GEOs bring high capacity at the lowest possible cost wherever needed,” he said. 

Hughes’ next satellite, the 500-gigabit-per-second Jupiter-3, is projected to launch in the second half of 2021, though the company has yet to select a launch provider. 


aerospace astronomy FCC LEO Megaconstellations spacex starlink Telesat Viasat

LEO constellations still held to high bar in FCC rural broadband subsidy program

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission remains unconvinced that low Earth orbit satellite internet constellations are worth subsidizing through its $16 billion rural broadband program despite tweaking the rules for that program to give LEO constellations a better chance to qualify for funding. 

In a move meant to benefit the likes of SpaceX, Telesat, Viasat and others, the FCC said June 9 it will allow LEO broadband constellations to compete for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund subsidies as a low-latency service. Before adopting the rule change, all satellites were categorized as high latency regardless of orbit, a classification that hurt satellite operators’ chances of receiving subsidies under a program that favors low latency and high data rates.

However, LEO broadband providers must still convince the FCC that their networks can deliver the kind of lag-free experience that internet customers expect for video conferencing and other interactive services. Satellite operators will compete with cable operators and other terrestrial providers for subsidies as the FCC seeks to encourage the deployment of low-cost, future-proofed broadband systems in underserved parts of the United States.

The FCC amended the rules after one of its commissioners, Michael O’Rielly, convinced FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to give LEO constellations the opportunity to show the FCC they can compete with terrestrial broadband networks. 

“I am grateful to the chairman for agreeing to expand eligibility for the low-latency performance tier and change language that was prejudicial to certain providers,” O’Rielly said June 9 during an open meeting the FCC held as a video teleconference due to ongoing restrictions on in-person gatherings. 

“[N]ext-generation satellite broadband holds tremendous technological promise for addressing the digital divide and is led by strong American companies with a lengthy record of success,” another FCC commissioner, Geoffrey Starks, said in support of the change. “Commission staff should evaluate those applications on their own merits.”

Pai, however, warned that allowing LEO broadband operators to compete in a category previously off limits to satellites doesn’t guarantee success. LEO applicants competing as low-latency systems “will be given very close scrutiny,” he said. 

“The purpose of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is to ensure that Americans have access to broadband, no matter where they live,” Pai said during the open meeting. “It is not a technology incubator to fund untested technologies, and we will not allow taxpayer funding to be wasted.”

An uphill fight for satellite operators

The FCC approved the change June 9, but did not release the full text of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s rules until June 11. In the 121-page public notice, the FCC said that while it will allow LEO satellite operators to compete for subsidies as low-latency providers, their systems — all of which are either still in development or the early stages of deployment — will be carefully scrutinized. 

Any broadband providers wishing to qualify to participate in a reverse auction scheduled for Oct. 29 must submit “short-form applications” to the FCC by July 15 detailing how they will meet the agency’s criteria. 

The FCC, in releasing the new rules, said it has “serious doubts that any low earth orbit networks will be able to meet the short-form application requirements for bidding in the low latency tier.”

LEO constellations that bid as low-latency networks, rather than challenge GEO providers in the only category of the competition open to high-latency services, will “face a substantial challenge demonstrating to Commission staff that their networks can deliver real-world performance to consumers below the Commission’s 100 [millisecond] low-latency threshold,” the FCC said in its public notice. 

The agency specifically dismissed SpaceX’s assertion that the 550-kilometer orbit chosen for its Startlink constellation ensures the network will outperform the agency’s latency threshold. Closer orbits do result in less lag time, since signals have shorter distances to travel, but network processing times add to the total amount of latency. 

SpaceX told the FCC in a February presentation that Starlink will deliver less than 50 milliseconds of latency, but did not cite a demonstrated transmission speed. The Hawthorne, California-based company has launched the first 482 of thousands of planned Starlink satellites, making it the front-runner in deploying a LEO broadband network, with limited service expected to start in the United States and Canada late this year. 

OneWeb, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March after launching 74 of a planned 650 satellites, did not submit comments to the FCC about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The company’s launch program has stalled while it attempts to sell its spectrum rights. 

Canada-based geostationary satellite operator Telesat said in a June news release that the prototype LEO broadband satellite it launched more than two years ago demonstrated latencies of 30-60 milliseconds during testing. Telesat told the FCC in March that Telesat LEO will be “indistinguishable” from terrestrial internet as far as signal lag is concerned. However, Telesat  has not selected a manufacturer to build its constellation, and doesn’t expect to start limited service any sooner than 2022. 

Viasat, which relies on geostationary satellites to deliver residential internet service that can’t deliver the same high speeds as fiber optic and cable services, told the FCC last month it is willing to build a LEO broadband constellation if it can win a meaningful chunk of the FCC’s subsidies. The Carlsbad, California company was the only satellite operator to win funding in the FCC’s previous rural broadband program, the Connect America Fund 2, in 2018. 

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will award a total of $20.4 billion in two phases. The first phase, which runs through 2030, will dole out up to $16 billion to existing and prospective providers who convince the FCC they can build affordable high-speed, low-latency broadband networks to connect underserved rural regions of the United States. The second phase, the dates and rules for which haven’t been set, will allocate the remaining $4.4 billion. 

The FCC’s O’Rielly, speaking  during the agency’s open meeting, said the second phase presents another chance to revisit the FCC’s criteria. 

“Communications technology evolves at an extremely rapid pace, and who knows which technologies will have advanced or emerged by the time we get to Phase 2?” he said.