TAMPA, Fla. — The Federal Communications Commission is standing by last year’s decision to deny Starlink nearly $900 million in rural broadband subsidies.

The regulator issued its final denial Dec. 12, reaffirming that SpaceX’s satellite broadband service failed to meet requirements for participating in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

“The FCC followed a careful legal, technical and policy review to determine that this applicant had failed to meet its burden to be entitled to” the funds,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a news release.

SpaceX was provisionally awarded the subsidies in December 2020 after competing in an auction under the first phase of the RDOF process.

The company was in line for $886 million over 10 years to deliver high-speed broadband to nearly 643,000 homes and businesses in 35 states, after winning one of the largest shares of the multi-billion-dollar fund.

However, the 180 auction winners had to show how they would deploy services that meet RDOF conditions, and this is where the FCC says SpaceX fell short. Terrestrial telco LTD Broadband was also denied $1.3 billion in provisionally awarded subsidies.

RDOF requirements include providing 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 20 Mbps upload speeds.

According to the latest Ookla speed tests, Starlink median download performance in the United States was 64.54 Mbps in the third quarter of 2023, which the research firm said was a slight decline quarter-on-quarter but up 22% on the 53 Mbps recorded for the period in 2022.

Median upload performance has been rising, Ookla added, hitting 9.72 Mbps over the three months to the end of September.

SpaceX said it is “deeply disappointed and perplexed” by the FCC’s RDOF denial.

The decision singles out SpaceX for not meeting RDOF speed requirements years before it had any obligation to do so, the company said in a Dec. 12 letter to the FCC.

SpaceX also took aim at the FCC’s use of Ookla speed tests, which the company said came without warning and involve nationwide averages covering areas that would not be served with RDOF support.

“This decision directly undermines the very goal of RDOF: to connect unserved and underserved Americans. Starlink is demonstrably one of the best options—likely the best option—to accomplish the goals of RDOF,” wrote SpaceX vice president Christopher Cardaci (emphasis in original).

“Indeed, Starlink is arguably the only viable option to immediately connect many of the Americans who live and work in the rural and remote areas of the country where high-speed, low-latency internet has been unreliable, unaffordable, or completely unavailable, the very people RDOF was supposed to connect.”

SpaceX has plans to upgrade Starlink services with increasingly powerful satellites, which would also greatly benefit from the Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle the company is developing in Boca Chica, Texas.

Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington, the FCC’s two Republican FCC Commissioners, have dissented from the regulator’s Starlink subsidiary denial decision.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...