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Satellite providers jostle for 5G Fund money

The FCC this week voted to move forward with plans to allocate up to $9 billion to finance the buildout of 5G in rural areas of the US.

And, interestingly, the agency left the door open to the possibility of satellite providers getting a piece of the fund.

Specifically, the FCC said participants in the fund must build 5G networks that can support at least 35Mbit/s download speeds, 3Mbit/s upload speeds, and a latency of 100 milliseconds or less. If those metrics can be delivered by a 5G network in space, that's OK.

But, as noted by SpaceNews, satellite providers that participate in the 5G Fund must also supply their services directly to an "off-the-shelf" smartphone. Meaning, big, clunky satellite phones won't be eligible.

Thus, the 5G Fund is now officially on the radar of two startups – SpaceMobile and Lynk – that are racing to connect standard smartphones directly to satellites.

And the two companies have very different takes on the FCC's new 5G Fund.

"The FCC was wise to allow qualified satellite companies to participate in the 5G Fund for Rural America auction," wrote Abel Avellan, chairman and CEO of Texas-based startup AST & Science, the company behind SpaceMobile, in response to questions from Light Reading. "This will be a fantastic opportunity to close the digital divide by bringing cost-effective coverage to the entire US and all its territories. We believe SpaceMobile and its wireless partners will play a vital role in fulfilling the critical goal of universal coverage in line with the FCC vision of not leaving any American without high quality 5G wireless broadband connectivity."

It's worth noting that SpaceMobile has an agreement with AT&T, as first reported by Light Reading earlier this year.

Lynk, though, offered a decidedly more colloquial response.

"In theory, Lynk can meet the 5G Fund goals," wrote Lynk CEO Charles Miller in response to questions from Light Reading. "In practice, we don't have the required spectrum approvals, and we are just too early."

Miller said many of the FCC's performance and buildout requirements are "effectively impossible for a satellite company still developing its core satellite tech. If anybody says otherwise, they don't understand what it takes to design, develop, test, launch and operate a LEO [low Earth orbit] satellite constellation."

To be clear, Lynk and SpaceMobile weren't the only satellite companies angling for a piece of the FCC's 5G Fund. For example, SES argued that its own Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite network should also be considered for the fund.

Aside from the question of 5G from space, the FCC's 5G Fund also faces one other big hurdle: It is contingent on the creation of "precise, granular" broadband maps through the FCC's Digital Opportunity Data Collection process. The agency won't allocate any money through the 5G Fund until it creates those maps – a potentially expensive and time-consuming process.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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