Satellite Broadband Deserves Promoting

When it comes to the next generation of broadband services, fiber-based Gigabit networks and 5G-enabled fixed wireless networks have drawn deserved attention. But satellite broadband services and integrated satellite and terrestrial services are becoming potent new sources of competition to the benefit of both residential consumers and enterprise customers.

Advanced geostationary orbit and emerging non-geostationary orbit fixed-satellite broadband providers are fast approaching the ability to reach residential consumers nationwide with high speeds. Competing fixed-satellite broadband services are increasingly offering consumers and businesses access with download speeds of 25 Megabits per second, 50 Mbps, and even 100 Mbps. Near-future satellite broadband technologies are anticipated to reach Terabit-level speeds.

According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2018 Broadband Progress Report, at the end of 2016, about 92.3% of the U.S. population had access to fixed broadband internet access services offering speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. Fixed broadband service coverage numbers rose to 95.6% of the population when satellite broadband services were included. Importantly, fixed-satellite broadband services have the potential to quickly close the broadband coverage gap almost entirely and to give consumers who already have access to broadband services new competitive choices.

Since 2017, the FCC rightly has encouraged satellite broadband services, including by granting new market entrant applications and by streamlining satellite service rules. Going forward, the commission should continue making approvals of satellite-based broadband services a priority, continue to streamline rules and reduce processing delays.

Competitors Emerge

The Satellite Industry Association’s 2017 report indicates that there were nearly 2 million residential subscribers to geostationary fixed satellite broadband services at the end of 2016. The 2018 Broadband Progress Report specifically cited geostationary fixed-satellite broadband services offered by Hughes Network Systems and ViaSat: “The 2017 launches of the high throughput Jupiter 2 and ViaSat 2 satellites by Hughes and ViaSat, respectively, could further increase 25 Mbps/3 Mbps satellite offerings in the future.”

HughesNet is the largest provider of residential fixed broadband service, with 1 million subscribers in 2017. In March 2017, HughesNet deployed its advanced EchoStar XIX satellite, thereby doubling the capacity of its prior satellite configuration. Hughes’s reply comment in the FCC’s broadband progress report proceeding stated the EchoStar XIX enables it “to deliver broadband-defined speeds of 25/3 Mbps for residential users and 55/5 Mbps for enterprise users across the continental United States.” Its planned 2021 launch of the EchoStar XXIV/Jupiter 3 ultra-high-density satellite “will provide residential and commercial internet and data services, including in-flight internet and network backhaul for remote cellular towers.”

At the end of 2017, ViaSat reportedly had about 577,000 residential subscribers to its broadband service. This February, ViaSat announced the availability of its fastest residential broadband service to date. Enabled by ViaSat-2, its latest generation satellite, the new service has advertised speed tiers reaching download speeds of 25 Mbps, 50 Mbps and 100 Mbps. ViaSat’s future plans include the launch of its ViaSat-3 satellite, which may offer 1 Terabit-per-second download speeds.

Also in the competition mix are non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) fixed-satellite services with purported terabit-level speed capabilities. In June 2017, the commission granted market access to SoftBank-backed OneWeb for its NGSO system. The commission also granted NGSO applications by Space Norway and Telesat in 2017.

According to the FCC’s OneWeb Order, OneWeb’s system is set to consist of “a constellation of 720 satellites evenly distributed in 18 near-polar orbital planes, at an approximate altitude of 1200 kilometers,” with plans for high-speed, affordable broadband connectivity throughout the U.S. Launches are planned for 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, Space Norway’s planned “Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) system consists of two satellites in one orbit,” which would provide fixed broadband service coverage to unserved and underserved residential customers in the Artic region of the U.S.. And Telesat was “permitted to access the U.S. market using a proposed constellation of 117 satellites” and thereby “enhance competition among existing and future” fixed-satellite broadband services.

Furthermore, on Feb. 14, FCC chair Ajit Pai proposed that the commission grant the application of Elon Musk’s SpaceX “to provide broadband services using satellite technologies in the United States and on a global basis.”

Serving Underserved Areas

The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Progress Report indicates that “as of year-end 2016 … over 24 million Americans still lack fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps.” Also, 30.7% of Americans in rural areas as well as 35.4% of Americans on tribal lands lacked access to fixed terrestrial broadband with speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. Fixed-satellite broadband services can provide an important solution for reaching unserved and underserved areas, and competing choices for residents and businesses. Satellite-based broadband technologies are also necessary to fully enable the Internet of Things, an essential part of transmitting geo-location information to vehicles, as well as for transmitting other data to myriad types of smart devices and equipment.

Pending before the commission, for example, is a proposed service by Ligado Networks that would use satellite capability in combination with a terrestrial network to deliver smart device communications. Unless and until the FCC resumes its review process and approves the proposal, valuable mid-range spectrum resources will continue to go unused and generate no economic or other public benefits.

Satellite technologies are poised to become increasingly important competitors in the next-generation broadband services market and essential facilitators of the Internet of Things. Accordingly, the FCC should build on its recent track record of promoting fixed-satellite broadband services.

Seth L. Cooper is senior fellow at the Free State Foundation, a Rockville, Md.-based think tank promoting free-market public policies.