Viasat is sizing up a plan to build and launch nearly 300 low earth orbit satellites that could enable the company to participate in the US Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF).
The company wants to deliver broadband service at low enough latencies (at less than 100 milliseconds) to qualify for a piece of the $20.4 billion in subsidies that's up for grabs in the FCC's RDOF initiative.
The FCC's proposed RDOF Phase I rules released in May exclude all satellites (including LEOs) from eligibility in low-latency bidding. Still, Viasat believes if LEO satellites are eligible for the low-latency tier in Phase II (or if the proposed rules for Phase I are later changed), it could provide a LEO solution that could "compete very effectively."
According to SpaceNews, Viasat's proposed LEO constellation of 288 satellites would operate at 1,300 kilometers using the same Ka- and V-band frequencies it's currently authorized for medium earth orbit (MEO). Viasat essentially wants to transfer its existing MEO approval to a LEO constellation, the report added.
"Basically, what our filing does now is just lowers the orbit from MEO to LEO," Viasat Chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg explained last week on the company's fiscal Q4 earnings call.
Dankberg is confident that a shift in altitude from MEO to LEO isn't the key issue. "The main burden is to show that the constellation, as modified, would not cause any more interference to other constellations that would have been generated by the original filing," he said. "That's really what the test is."
Assuming that the FCC does allow LEO satellites to be eligible in the Phase 2 part of the RDOF, the "opportunity for funding is far in excess of the increase in what the constellation would cost," he added.
Viasat, which had some success against low-latency terrestrial bidders in the prior Connect America Fund II auction, claims that its LEO application is "optimized for RDOF" and more efficient for that initiative compared to other LEO-based offerings. Viasat claims that each of its LEO satellites would support five to ten times the capacity of other licensed LEOs and reduce the number of satellites required.
Elon Musk's Starlink, for example, has already launched more than 400 of its LEO satellites, a step toward a bigger push to launch and deploy a constellation of more than 4,000 broadband birds.
"Less than 300 in total could have as much capacity as thousands of other satellites, and would comply with proposed space safety rules," Viasat explained in a letter to investors.
SpaceNews notes that Viasat's LEO ambitions face an uphill battle in part because the FCC does not view RDOF as an "appropriate venue to test unproven technologies using universal service support."
Viasat's recent quarterly results featured a move to cut back on staff and enlist a hiring freeze to help mitigate the financial impact on its in-flight broadband business during a pandemic that has caused a major cutback in air travel. For the complete story, please see: Viasat cuts staff, sizes up LEO satellite opportunity for rural broadband .
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading, special to Broadband World News