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SpaceX gets FCC approval to bid in $16 billion rural-broadband auction

Enlarge / A SpaceX Starlink user terminal/satellite dish.

SpaceX is one of the 386 entities that have qualified to bid in a federal auction for rural-broadband funding.

SpaceX has so far overcome the Federal Communications Commission’s doubts about whether Starlink, its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite service, can provide latency of less than 100ms and thus qualify for the auction’s low-latency tier. With the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) set to distribute up to $16 billion to ISPs, the FCC initially placed SpaceX on the “incomplete application” list, which includes ISPs that had not shown they were qualified to bid in their desired performance and latency tiers. The FCC also said that LEO providers “will face a substantial challenge” obtaining approval to bid in the low-latency tier because they must “demonstrat[e] to Commission staff that their networks can deliver real-world performance to consumers below the Commission’s 100ms low-latency threshold.”

That changed yesterday when the FCC announced the list of bidders that qualified for the auction that is scheduled to begin on October 29. Besides SpaceX, qualified bidders include Altice USA, CenturyLink, Charter, Cincinnati Bell, Cox, Frontier, Hughes, US Cellular, Verizon, Viasat, Windstream, and many smaller companies. There were 119 applicants that did not make the final list.

SpaceX appears to be the only LEO satellite provider in the approved list of applicants, with a partial exception: Hughes, a traditional satellite provider, is an investor in OneWeb and has said it will use OneWeb’s LEO capacity as part of its bid to get RDOF money. OneWeb, which is in bankruptcy, is not bidding in the auction itself. Viasat is considering a move into LEO satellites but, like Hughes, Viasat today uses geostationary satellites with poor latencies of around 600ms.

SpaceX’s Starlink service is in a limited beta and appears to be providing latencies well under the 100ms threshold. SpaceX still isn’t guaranteed to get FCC funding. After the auction, winning bidders will have to submit “long-form” applications with more detail on how they will meet deployment requirements in order to get the final approval for funding.

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