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Hughes, SpaceX, and Viasat to Compete for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Subsidies 

By Rachel Jewett | October 14, 2020
Federal Communications Commission. Photo: FCC

Federal Communications Commission. Photo: FCC

Hughes Network Systems, SpaceX, and Viasat are qualified to bid in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase 1 auction to bridge the digital divide, the FCC announced Tuesday. The satellite operators are among 386 companies qualified to receive up to $20.4 billion to connect unserved areas in the United States with broadband service. 

The Phase 1 auction, in which companies bid on areas to receive subsidies to provide service, is scheduled to begin Oct. 29. Funds of $16 billion are available in Phase 1, which will target more than six million homes and businesses in census blocks that are unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps. The FCC will give priority to bids for higher speeds, up to 1 Gbps, and lower latency. 

Hughes and Viasat provide satellite internet service from Geostationary (GEO) satellites. Viasat announced earlier this year it is looking to build a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation for broadband, subsidized by RDOF. 

Hughes, which invested in the consortium to acquire OneWeb, may use OneWeb’s LEO satellites to augment service from its satellites in GEO in order to offer lower latency, Hughes President Pradman Kaul said during Hughes’ August Second Quarter (Q2) earnings call, Space News reported. OneWeb satellites do not provide commercial service yet. 

SpaceX is building out its Starlink constellation of LEO satellites for broadband internet. The constellation is not yet in commercial service, but SpaceX plans to begin beta testing soon

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called this the FCC’s “biggest and boldest step” to bridge the digital divide. 

“The unprecedented interest in this auction is due in large part to key decisions by the FCC, including providing substantial funding and promoting technological neutrality toward potential bidding participants, as well as our staff’s extensive work to spread awareness of the program and ensure the broadest participation in a competitive auction that will deliver real benefits to rural Americans across the country,” Pai said in a news release.