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FCC commissioner urges more funding for satellite broadband

FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington said satellite-based wireless broadband should be available in remote areas where fiber isn't an option.

FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington urged the private industry to deploy more satellites for delivering broadband to U.S. rural areas that have not reaped the internet's business and educational benefits.

In an online discussion this week with Bruce Mehlman, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, Simington discussed the limitations of fiber and the urgent need for broadband in places far away from urban areas. Today, broadband is unavailable to 13% of the U.S. population.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that using fiber to get broadband to approximately 85% of locations not served today would cost $40 billion. It would take an additional $40 billion to bring cable to the last 15%, the most remote areas. The FCC defines broadband as connections with download speeds of 25 Mbps.

Simington said satellite-delivered broadband should be available in any underserved area where fiber isn't an option.

"Some degree of wireless is going to have to be part of the broadband future," Simington said. 

The FCC has incentives in place for satellite internet providers. In August 2019, the FCC lowered the application fee and shortened the review process for small satellite companies.

In January 2020, the commission established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide $20.4 billion for expanding broadband in unserved rural areas. In the first rollout stage, the FCC awarded $886 million to Elon Musk's satellite company SpaceX.

But there are challenges with deploying satellites. One of them is orbital debris, which NASA defines as human-made objects orbiting the Earth with no useful purpose.

In April 2020, the FCC adopted rules for deploying satellites that sought to avoid debris-caused damage. The regulations required companies to disclose the potential for collisions and the maneuverability of their spacecraft.

At the same time, the FCC said it was sensitive to passing undue regulatory obstacles.

"It's important for us to be thoughtful about how we want to mitigate orbital debris," Simington said.

The U.K. has also taken steps to protect satellites against orbital debris. Earlier this year, the U.K. Space Agency unveiled an initiative to remove space waste.

Security risks are another concern with satellite use, Simington said. He cautioned that only a few significant breaches would make the public skeptical of space-based wireless services.

When internet service is available, it's not always affordable in rural and urban areas. Lawmakers have proposed legislation that would force broadband providers to pay into the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes internet service for the poor. However, Congress has not acted on the proposals.

Simington suggested providers offer low-cost services voluntarily to some people.

"That might be what moves the needle the last bit of the way -- voluntary industry action on this front that increases accessibility," Simington said.

Maxim Tamarov is a news writer covering mobile and end-user computing. He previously wrote for The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C., and the Sun Transcript in Winthrop, Mass. He graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @MaximTamarov.

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