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 individuals with low incomes by means of the federal government’s Lifeline program.

The small print are in Starlink’s petition to the Federal Communications Fee for designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Provider (ETC) below the Communications Act. SpaceX stated 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 be wanted to get reimbursement from the FCC’s Lifeline program for providing reductions on telecom service to individuals with low incomes.

Starlink is in beta and costs $99 per 30 days, plus a one-time charge of $499 for the consumer 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 clients within the US—the corporate has permission to deploy as much as 1 million consumer terminals (i.e. satellite tv for pc dishes) and is seeking FCC permission to lift the maximum-deployment stage to five million consumer terminals.

VoIP plans

Whereas the Starlink beta solely consists of broadband, SpaceX stated it should ultimately promote VoIP service that features “(a) voice-grade entry to the general public switched phone community (‘PSTN’) or its purposeful equal; (b) minutes of use for native service supplied at no extra cost to finish customers; (c) entry to emergency providers; and (d) toll limitation providers to qualifying low-income customers.”

Voice service can be bought “on a standalone foundation at charges which might be fairly akin to city charges,” SpaceX stated. The plan is not finalized, however SpaceX stated it’s exploring the usage of “a white-label managed service supplier (MSP) voice platform.”

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

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

Starlink Providers continues to evaluate integrating various standalone voice purposes into the Starlink community, together with different third-party suppliers, or probably growing its personal proprietary answer. The corporate could undertake such approaches within the occasion that additional testing demonstrates various options would supply a superior expertise to the top buyer or, if Starlink Providers determines the top consumer 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 clients who need it. “On the consumer stage, Starlink Providers will provide a 24-hour battery back-up possibility for consumer tools that may present the power to make cellphone calls within the occasion of an influence outage,” SpaceX stated.

The 24-hour backup provide would fulfill an FCC rule handed in 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. Although the backup possibility described in SpaceX’s submitting applies to cellphone service, we have seen from the Starlink beta that the consumer 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 purposeful 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 consumer may have a number of satellites in view with which it may talk. Moreover, each satellite tv for pc may have a number of gateway websites in view with which it may talk. The Starlink site visitors routing system ensures that each consumer is served with bandwidth earlier than customers demanding extra bandwidth get extra throughput assigned, which supplies the Starlink community robustness within the occasion of emergencies requiring excessive throughput.


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 clients as a result of solely carriers designated as an ETC can take part within the Lifeline program,” the corporate stated. However as soon as it will get the ETC designation, SpaceX stated it “will present Lifeline to qualifying low-income customers and publicize the provision of Lifeline service in a way fairly designed to succeed in these more likely 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 30 days, the subsidies wouldn’t be sufficient to make that plan reasonably priced for low-income customers, so we might count on SpaceX to supply different, cheaper plans to clients who meet the low-income necessities. With Lifeline, every supplier seeks reimbursement from the fund after offering service to eligible customers.

Starlink to be common-carrier service

SpaceX’s submitting additionally stated that Starlink broadband and cellphone can be supplied 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 standard provider foundation,” the submitting stated.

Whether or not broadband ought to be regulated as a common-carrier service has been a partisan battle. The Obama-era FCC classified ISPs as common carriers below Title II of the Communications Act with the intention to implement web 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 need,” Harold Feld, a longtime telecom lawyer and senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Information, informed Ars.

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

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