Satellite Broadband Options Like Starlink Shouldn’t Be Getting Precious Broadband Subsidies

from the future-proof dept

While Elon Musk often crows about his disdain for subsidies, Musk companies routinely hoover up billions in government assistance. For example, Starlink gamed the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidy auction to nab nearly a billion dollars to deploy broadband to areas that didn’t need it: including some airport parking lots and a few parking medians.

Not too surprisingly, the fiber broadband industry isn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of government funding going to satellite broadband, in part because options like Starlink lack the kind of capacity needed to truly fix the U.S. broadband problem, and even Musk concedes they may not be financially viable over the longer haul, meaning that money could be wasted.

But Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton notes that every time a satellite broadband company like Starlink gets awarded government broadband subsidies, it precludes another company willing to deliver faster, better fiber from getting that money:

Bolton noted that those homes are not eligible for deployments funded through other government programs that have come into being since the RDOF auction because they are supposed to get the SpaceX service [and] fiber broadband should be made available to everyone in the U.S. because it is the most future-proof technology available.

“We don’t want to be able to discriminate based on your zip code,” he said. “To solve societal issues, we have to make sure everyone has more bandwidth than they could ever use.”

While it’s not too surprising to see the fiber industry unhappy that other technologies are getting government subsidies, they’re not wrong. Organizations like the EFF have also repeatedly noted that if we’re going to subsidize broadband, that money should be going toward “future proof” fiber, with 5G and fixed wireless filling most of the gaps.

Low-orbit satellite broadband solutions like Starlink are fine, they’re just constrained by the laws of physics, which is why Starlink’s initial launch not only can only serve 500-800k subscribers max, but the 250,000 customers that have signed up are already seeing network slowdowns.

Starlink can and is a good niche solution for users without alternative options. But physics are physics, and it simply doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be throwing millions of dollars at a billionaire-backed broadband solution that can’t scale and may not even exist in several years. If you put fiber in the ground, even if the company goes to hell, that fiber is still useful.

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Companies: spacex, starlink

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Comments on “Satellite Broadband Options Like Starlink Shouldn’t Be Getting Precious Broadband Subsidies”

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OGquaker says:

should be going toward “future proof” fiber

With the dot-com build out, “investors” subsumed $$billions into fiber in the late 1990’s, every boulevard, every pipeline, rail or power line right-o-way got fiber across America. The 2000 “collapse” allowed the Telcos to buy fiber ALREADY IN PLACE for a penny on the dollar: bandwidth is an artificial scarcity : the golden goose of capital-izm.

PacBell had pulled their fiber Out of this street after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 “deregulation” of the Telcos, supposedly allowing competition in the last mile. The CPUC refused to have public hearings when GTE pulled out of the market in 2001 (a dozen companies still were available with 6 line minimums) leaving ATT the monopoly for all forms of electronic interconnects. A single pocket to put our money into is the only outcome of your argument: Future-Proofed.

P.S. One-web, Amazon, Starlink and the future Chinese LEO systems are designed to also feed local fiber distribution hubs.

DT says:

Try living in “the country”. Even being near +/- 2 hours from a major metropolitan hub, many people have maybe DSL as an option. PtP solutions can help, but for the most part, Starlink is the only viable option for the next 20 years for a lot of us. There is zero incentive or regulation that requires large providers to pull fiber or provide real broadband in some form to everyone. Also, having been in a region in the past where fiber passed from one company to a worse company, having fiber in the ground doesn’t mean they actually provide a reasonable service.

Anonmylous says:


What other company? AT&T? Verizon? Comcast? We already paid for the fiber networks they aren’t utilizing. The fiber networks they refuse to allow anyone else to utilize. Reclassify them Title 2 again and we’ll talk. Until then, screw it, give money to Musk and the rest, at least they are trying to use it instead of lining their pockets and slowly lighting up pre-existing fiber.

Anonymous Coward says:

We’re close enough to see the football stadium of the second largest university in Tx if the trees weren’t in the way but our only internet besides satellite is ATT LTE. Back in the late ’90s, very early’ 00s they ran fiber down every road around here with tax dollars but then never did anything with it. Nobody got hooked up. I wonder who paid for the MUsk and Starlink hit peice?

Pinewold says:

Every major telecommunications abandoned rural areas

Techdirt should be ashamed for publishing such a patently false article. Every major telco collected money for rural fiber and then refused to offer rural fiber. They went so far as to dump all rural areas to shell companies that immediately went bankrupt so they could shed rural fiber obligations!

Little Varmint says:

RDOF maps

My neighborhood is supposedly “covered” by a local cable company according to RDOF maps, but when I call them or we have a community meeting with the company, they always say “It will cost $8,000 per household to get it installed” There are 7 houses in the neighborhood, the farthest about 500 feet from the main fiber trunk. This company has already received funding for the “area” because one house closest to the trunk has a connection. It’s all a scam that lines the pockets of these already rich cable companies. At least Starlink provided me with a legit connection for $500. They have been in business for 2 or 3 years. Results are important.

Anonymous Coward says:

What a joke of an article. How about the author tries living in a rural area where fiber was deployed on your road, but you have to pay Charter $60,000 to get hooked up to broadband. I pay $80 a month for 12/2 ADSL service and it is my only non geostationary satellite option without paying $60,000 to get hooked up to an above ground cable on utility poles. There are public schools within a mile of me in both directions, still no broadband. I’m so tired of these spoiled urban people shitting on the only company willing to serve rural areas. Techdirt laughably out of touch.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

The solution

Is government funded door to door fibre…
5Gmm tower placement.

And fuck all the NIMBY cupcakes on towers. I’d love to have a tower in the corner of the lot. Please tower building people! Right Fn There.
Property value? Here’s a headline: 5GUC guaranteed!

Anyone who’s seen what 5G can actually do would consider it a viable option.
But nothing is going to happen unless the government stops sending out money and starts spending it itself!

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