This week, the Federal Communications Commission expressed uncertainty over whether SpaceX and other companies developing low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite networks for internet delivery can offer latencies below 100 milliseconds (ms). Hitting that mark could allow satellite providers to apply for rural broadband funding as low-latency providers, but the FCC’s latest statements cast doubt on whether providers can overcome that hurdle.
In general, latency is the time between an input and a response, and when it comes to internet service, lower latency can provide more pleasant browsing experiences. In online gaming circles, responsiveness is vital and latency of around 100ms or more can be considered severe and could dramatically impact gameplay.
Traditional satellite internet providers have typically offered up relatively high latency compared to other delivery methods due to the distance information has to travel back and forth via geostationary satellites. And while SpaceX’s Starlink and other companies leveraging low-Earth orbit satellites don’t have quite the distance to cover, the FCC still has reservations about LEO satellite providers truly delivering low-latency access.
“Satellites in low-Earth orbit are not subject to the same propagation latency limitations as higher orbiting satellites,” the FCC said in its order. “We are, however, unaware of any low earth orbit network capable of providing a mass market retail broadband service to residential consumers that could meet the Commission’s 100ms round-trip latency requirements.”
Low-latency providers will have an advantage when it comes to the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, which is set to begin on October 29th. With $16 billion in funding over 10 years at stake, crossing the low-latency hurdle could be vital to satellite providers.
Earlier this year, SpaceX told the FCC its delivery system “easily clears” the 100ms requirement, even when considering worst-case scenarios. However, time might be against SpaceX. The company still plans to offer service to areas of the US and Canada this year, but applications for the auction are due by 6pm ET on July 15th.
We’ll continue to track the latest developments and keep you up-to-date as we learn more.
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