A new SpaceX is filing details of the plans of Starlink to provide phones, an emergency backup to voice calls, and lower-cost plans for those with poor incomes under the Government’s Lifeline program.
The specifics are contained in Starlink’s request for the Federal Communications Commission for designation as an eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act. SpaceX stated that it needs legal status in a few states where it has received federal funding to install broadband in areas that are not yet developed. This ETC designation requires financial reimbursements from the Lifeline Program of the FCC for providing discounts on telecom services to those with low incomes.
SpaceX programs Starlink phones, backup in case of emergency, and access for people with low income
Starlink is currently in Beta and will cost just $99 per month with a one-time cost for 499 dollars for the device, the tripod that mounts it and the router. As we mentioned yesterday that the SpaceX filing also states that Starlink currently has more than 10,000 users across the US and around the world. SpaceX is expected to have the capacity to serve millions of customers in the United States. The company has permission to install up to one million terminals for users (i.e. satellite dishes) as well as in the process of seeking FCC approval to increase the maximum-deployment limit to 5 million user terminals.
Although the Starlink beta does not include broadband service, SpaceX stated that they will in the future offer VoIP service that will include “(a) voice-grade connectivity to the network of public switched phone (‘PSTN’) or its equivalent function; (b) minutes of local service usage free of charge to the end user; (c) access to emergency services, and (d) services for toll limitation for consumers with low incomes who qualify.”
Vocal service can be available “on an individual basis with rates which are similar to rates in urban areas,” SpaceX said. The plan isn’t in place yet. However, SpaceX announced it is exploring the possibility of creating “a white-label managed services provider (MSP) Voice platform.”
“In this plan of base, Starlink Services would provide customers with telephone services to the MSP’s platform through the capacity of its network, which can be accessed by consumers via their personal equipment for their customers,” the filing said. “Consumers can choose to use a third-party traditional phone that is connected to an Session Initiation Protocol standards-compliant analog terminal adaptor or a native IP phone that is selected from a catalog of models that are certified.”
SpaceX announced that it is looking into other options for phone service:
Starlink Services continues to assess the integration of alternative standalone voice apps to Starlink Services’ Starlink network and other third-party service providers, or perhaps developing its own unique solution. Starlink Services may choose to adopt these methods if further tests reveal that other options will provide a better experience for the customer or in the event that Starlink Services determines the end customer would benefit from the availability of different voice options to bring competition and redundancy to your supply chain.
Backup for emergencies
Similar to the other VoIP service providers, Starlink would sell a 24-hour battery backup option to clients who request it. “At the level of the user, Starlink Services will offer an option for battery backup that is 24 hours for devices used by the user which will allow users to make phone calls in the case that there is a power interruption,” SpaceX said.
The backup service that is available 24 hours a day is in line with an FCC regulation that was passed at the end of 2015 under the chairmanship of then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. While the backup feature mentioned in SpaceX’s filing is applicable to phone services, we’ve learned through Starlink’s Starlink Beta that this terminal can provide broadband by using a portable power supply.
SpaceX’s filing also outlined backup and redundancy plans on an organizational level.
Starlink Services will have sufficient backup power to be functional without any external source of power in circumstances of emergency, will be able to redirect traffic to areas that are damaged, and will be able to handle traffic spikes that result from circumstances of emergency… On a level of the system, Starlink Services is building redundant networks to the network. For instance, each user will have several satellites to which they can communicate. Furthermore, each satellite will have several gateway sites to which it is able to communicate. This Starlink Traffic Routing System ensures that each user is provided with a sufficient amount of bandwidth before users who need more bandwidth are allocated, which helps to give the Starlink network a high degree of resilience in situations requiring high-speed throughput.
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SpaceX did not provide any details regarding its Lifeline plans other than the fact that it’s planning to provide these plans.
“Starlink Services is currently not able to serve Lifeline customers as only companies that are designated as an ETC can take part within Lifeline. Lifeline programme,” the company said. Once it receives an ETC certification, SpaceX said it “will offer Lifeline to low-income people who meet the criteria and announce the existence of the Lifeline the service in a way reasonable enough to reach the people who are likely to be eligible to receive this service.”
Lifeline currently offers a $9.25 monthly fee for low-income households to access broadband or a $5.25 monthly per household subsidy for phone service. Based on Starlink’s initial cost, which is $99 per year, the subsidies won’t be sufficient to make the plan affordable to low-income customers. We’d expect SpaceX to provide other affordable plans for consumers who fulfil the criteria for low income. With Lifeline, every service provider is able to claim payment from the Fund after providing services to those who qualify.
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Starlink is a common carrier service.
SpaceX’s filing further stated that Starlink phones and broadband services would be provided as common-carrier service. “For the purposes of this designation [ETC], Starlink Services will provide broadband Internet access and standalone voice services to all customers in the Service Areas on a common basis of carrier,” the filing said.
The issue of whether broadband should be controlled as a service of a common carrier is a political battle. It was during the Obama administration that FCC declared ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act to apply net neutrality rules. Then the Trump-era FCC changed the classification. Broadband lobbyists fiercely protested against opposition to the Title II classification.
“The FCC allows carriers to provide broadband on a common-carrier basis, if they wish to,” Harold Feld, an experienced telecom lawyer and the senior vice president of consumer advocacy Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.
SpaceX adopting the common carrier classification in its effort to become an ETC and receive government support does not necessarily mean that it has any significance. Yet, Feld said, “It suggests that SpaceX is likely to challenge Title II classification. It is possible that they accept Title II. At a minimum, it shows that they don’t believe Title II common carriage is an unjust burden that would hinder them from providing service.”
“FCC filing reveals Starlink plans to provide a VoIP phone service that comes with a battery backup option and a reduced service offered through an FCC’s lower-income Lifeline Program (Jon Brodkin/ArsTechnica).”