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SpaceX plans Starlink phone service, emergency backup, and low-income access

Enlarge / A stack of 60 Starlink satellites launched in 2019.

A new SpaceX filing outlines plans for Starlink to offer phone service, emergency backup for voice calls, and cheaper plans for people with low incomes through the government’s Lifeline program.

The details are in Starlink’s petition to the Federal Communications Commission for designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act. SpaceX said it needs that legal designation in some of the states where it won government funding to deploy broadband in unserved areas. The ETC designation is also needed to get reimbursement from the FCC’s Lifeline program for offering discounts on telecom service to people with low incomes.

Starlink is in beta and costs $99 per month, plus a one-time fee of $499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router. As we noted yesterday, the SpaceX filing also says Starlink now has over 10,000 users in the US and abroad. SpaceX should have capacity for several million customers in the US—the company has permission to deploy up to 1 million user terminals (i.e. satellite dishes) and is seeking FCC permission to raise the maximum-deployment level to 5 million user terminals.

VoIP plans

While the Starlink beta only includes broadband, SpaceX said it will eventually sell VoIP service that includes “(a) voice-grade access to the public switched telephone network (‘PSTN’) or its functional equivalent; (b) minutes of use for local service provided at no additional charge to end users; (c) access to emergency services; and (d) toll limitation services to qualifying low-income consumers.”

Voice service will be sold “on a standalone basis at rates that are reasonably comparable to urban rates,” SpaceX said. The plan isn’t finalized, but SpaceX said it is exploring the use of “a white-label managed service provider (MSP) voice platform.”

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“In this baseline plan, Starlink Services would provide telephone services connecting consumers to its MSP’s platform using its network capacity, which is available to consumers through their customer premises equipment,” the filing said. “Consumers will have the option of using a third-party, conventional phone connected to a Session Initiation Protocol standards-compliant analog terminal adaptor or a native-IP phone selected from a list of certified models.”

SpaceX said it is also exploring other phone-service options:

Starlink Services continues to assess integrating alternative standalone voice applications into the Starlink network, including other third-party providers, or possibly developing its own proprietary solution. The company may adopt such approaches in the event that further testing demonstrates alternative solutions would provide a superior experience to the end customer or, if Starlink Services determines the end user would benefit from the existence of multiple voice solutions to introduce competition and redundancy into the supply chain.

Emergency backup

Like other VoIP providers, Starlink would sell a 24-hour battery backup to customers who want it. “At the user level, Starlink Services will offer a 24-hour battery back-up option for user equipment that will provide the ability to make phone calls in the event of a power outage,” SpaceX said.

The 24-hour backup offer would satisfy an FCC rule passed in 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. Though the backup option described in SpaceX’s filing applies to phone service, we’ve seen from the Starlink beta that the user terminal can deliver broadband with a portable power supply.

SpaceX’s filing also detailed backup and redundancy plans at the network level:

Starlink Services will have sufficient back-up power to remain functional without an external power source in emergency situations, will be able to reroute traffic around damaged facilities, and will be able to manage traffic spikes resulting from emergency situations… At the system level, Starlink Services is building redundancy into the network. For example, every user will have multiple satellites in view with which it can communicate. Additionally, every satellite will have multiple gateway sites in view with which it can communicate. The Starlink traffic routing system ensures that every user is served with bandwidth before users demanding more bandwidth get additional throughput assigned, which gives the Starlink network robustness in the event of emergencies requiring high throughput.

Lifeline

SpaceX didn’t provide much detail on its Lifeline plans beyond the fact that it intends to offer them.

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“Starlink Services currently has no Lifeline customers because only carriers designated as an ETC can participate in the Lifeline program,” the company said. But once it gets the ETC designation, SpaceX said it “will provide Lifeline to qualifying low-income consumers and publicize the availability of Lifeline service in a manner reasonably designed to reach those likely to qualify for the service.”

Lifeline currently provides a $9.25 monthly subsidy for low-income households to get broadband or a $5.25 monthly per-household subsidy for phone service. Based on Starlink’s beta price of $99 per month, the subsidies would not be enough to make that plan affordable for low-income consumers, so we’d expect SpaceX to offer other, cheaper plans to customers who meet the low-income requirements. With Lifeline, each provider seeks reimbursement from the fund after providing service to eligible consumers.

Starlink to be common-carrier service

SpaceX’s filing also said that Starlink broadband and phone will be offered as common-carrier services. “For purposes of this [ETC] designation, Starlink Services will provide broadband Internet access service and standalone voice service to the public throughout the Service Areas on a common carrier basis,” the filing said.

Whether broadband should be regulated as a common-carrier service has been a partisan battle. The Obama-era FCC classified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act in order to enforce net neutrality rules, and the Trump-era FCC reversed that classification. Broadband lobby groups bitterly opposed the Title II classification.

“The FCC allows carriers to offer broadband on a common-carrier basis if they so desire,” Harold Feld, a longtime telecom lawyer and senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.

SpaceX taking on the common-carrier classification as part of its plan to be an ETC and accept government funding doesn’t necessarily have any major significance. However, Feld said, “It suggests that [SpaceX is] unlikely to fight against Title II classification. Ideally, they might even support Title II. But at a minimum, this demonstrates that they don’t think Title II common carriage is some kind of horrible burden that will prevent them from offering service.”

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