SpaceX programs Starlink phones, emergency backup and access for those with low income

A new SpaceX document outlines the plans of Starlink to provide telephone service, emergency backup to voice call, and lower-cost plans for those with lower incomes through The government’s Lifeline program.

The specifics are contained in Starlink’s request in the Federal Communications Commission for designation as an eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act. SpaceX stated that it needs this legal status in certain states where it received government support to provide broadband service in rural areas. It also has an ETC designation is required to obtain an amount of reimbursement through the Federal Communications Commission’s “Lifeline” program to offer discounts on its telecom services for those with low incomes.

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Starlink is currently in the beta stage and is priced at monthly fees of $99 with a one-time cost that includes the terminal for users, a tripod for mounting and router. As we reported yesterday in the SpaceX report, Starlink currently has more than 10,000 users across the US and around the world. SpaceX will have capacity for many million customers in the US. The company has the permission to deploy as high as 1 million customer terminals (i.e. satellite dish) in addition to in the process of seeking FCC approval to increase the maximum-deployment limit to 5 million terminals for users.

VoIP plans

The Starlink beta is limited to broadband connectivity, SpaceX has said that it plans to eventually offer VoIP service which includes “(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 users who are not paying for it; (c) access to emergency services, and (d) toll-limitation services for consumers with low incomes who qualify.”

The service is offered “on an individual basis at prices 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 to create “a white-label managed services provider (MSP) service for voice.”

“In this base plan, Starlink Services would provide phone services that connect consumers to its MSP’s platform by using the capacity of its network, which is accessible to customers via their own equipment at their premises of their customers,” the filing said. “Consumers can choose to use a third-party traditional phone, connected to an Session Initiation Protocol standards-compliant analog terminal adaptor or a native IP phone selected from a catalog of certified models.”

SpaceX announced that it is investigating other phone-service options

Starlink Services continues to assess the possibility of integrating other standalone voice applications within Starlink Services’ Starlink network and other third-party service providers, or perhaps creating its own solution. Starlink Services may choose to adopt these strategies if further tests show that alternative solutions will deliver a superior service to the consumer or in the event that Starlink Services determines the end customer would benefit from the availability of various voice services to bring competition and redundancy in 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 calls in the event that there is a power interruption,” SpaceX said.

The backup service available 24 hours a day will satisfy an FCC policy passed at the end of 2015 under the chairmanship of then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. Although the backup plan mentioned in SpaceX’s filing is applicable to phone services, we’ve learned through Starlink’s Starlink Beta that this terminal can provide broadband using the power supply that is portable.

SpaceX’s filing also outlined backup and redundancy plans on levels of the networks:

Starlink Services will have sufficient backup power to function without an external power source during circumstances of emergency, will be able to redirect traffic to areas that are damaged, and will be able deal with traffic spikes caused by emergencies… at the level of the system, Starlink Services is building redundant networks to the network. In other words, every user will have several satellites that it will be able to communicate. In addition, every satellite will have several gateway sites to which it is able to communicate. This Starlink network’s traffic routing technology guarantees that each user is provided with bandwidth before users who require greater bandwidth are allocated, which provides the Starlink network the ability to withstand emergency situations requiring high-speed throughput.

Lifeline

SpaceX did not provide any details regarding its Lifeline plans other than the fact that it plans to deliver these plans.

“Starlink Services is currently unable to serve Lifeline customers, as only those designated as an ETC can participate with Lifeline. Lifeline service,” the company said. Once it receives its ETC status, SpaceX said it “will offer Lifeline to low-income people who meet the criteria and announce the Lifeline services in a way that is reasonably designed to reach people most likely to qualify for receive this service.”

Lifeline currently offers the $9.25 monthly payment for low-income households, which allows them to access broadband, or a $5.25 monthly household-wide subsidy to get phone service. Based on Starlink’s Beta cost that is $99 per year the subsidy would not suffice to make the plan affordable for consumers with low incomes We’d expect SpaceX to offer alternative lower-cost methods to consumers who fulfill the criteria for low income. With Lifeline every service provider will seek an amount from the fund after providing services to those who qualify.

Starlink is a standard carrier service

SpaceX’s filing also stated it will offer Starlink telephone and broadband services as common-carrier service. “For the purposes of this designation [ETC], Starlink Services will provide broadband Internet access service as well as 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 standard carrier service is a political battle. In the Obama era, FCC declared ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act to apply net neutrality rules. In the Trump-era, the FCC changed this classification. Broadband lobbyists strongly oppose their opposition to Title II classification.

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“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 accepting the common-carrier classification as part of its plans to become an ETC and to receive government funds does not necessarily mean that it has any significance. But, Feld said, “It implies that [SpaceX] is likely to challenge Title II classification. It is possible that they accept Title II. However, 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 launch an VoIP phone service that comes with battery backup options as well as a reduced service offered through its low-income Lifeline programme (Jon Brodkin/ArsTechnica)”

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