The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it has “serious doubts” that SpaceX will be able to deliver internet service with latency under 100 milliseconds (via Ars Technica). That would not only be bad for users, but means that SpaceX could be at a disadvantage in an auction to distribute $16 billion in federal funds to support rural broadband access. SpaceX strongly disagrees, but it may not be able to prove its case in time.
In a report on the phase I auction for the rural digital opportunity fund (RDOF), the FCC admitted that Starlink and other LEO (low-Earth orbit) providers have advantages over geostationary satellites that operate at much higher altitudes. However, it’s skeptical that latency can be determined by orbital altitude alone, saying it can also be affected by factors like “processing, routing and transporting traffic to its destination.”
SpaceX argued that the FCC’s doubts are unfounded and that Starlink will “easily clear the commission’s 100-millisecond threshold for low-latency services, even including its “processing time” during unrealistic worst-case scenarios. In fact, with altitudes at 335 to 354 miles (compared to 21,750 miles for geostationary systems), SpaceX is shooting for a latency below 20 milliseconds — in line with cable internet.
It will be a race to get there for sure. The top comment on the article (when I visited) wished them luck but also noted that 100ms is still pretty slow for gaming, which might indicate some hurdles for other applications too, if not know in the future.