FCC blocks ViaSat's end run around rural experiment standards

13 December 2014 by Steve Blum
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You’ve got to hand it to the people at ViaSat. They don’t give up. If FCC tests – correctly – show that satellite Internet service has both advantages and disadvantages, then shout the good news loud enough to shake the rafters and browbeat the FCC into suppressing the bad. If the FCC wants to conduct an experiment to see if there are technologies and business models that can deliver urban-quality broadband service to rural customers, try to duck the quality requirements when no one is looking.

That’s basically what ViaSat tried to do when it asked the FCC to forget about latency standards in its rural broadband experiments. The FCC solicited a ton of suggestions about how it should run those experiments in a very public process earlier this year. The rules that resulted set a limit of 100 milliseconds of latency for funded experimental projects. Pretty simple.

Not simple enough, it seems. ViaSat – which can’t operate within those experimental parameters because of the laws of physics – tried a back door approach, asking the FCC to waive that requirement. The FCC’s answer was no

We conclude that waiving one of the core requirements for one bidder in the rural broadband experiments without public input after the close of the filing window would be prejudicial to the integrity of the competitive bidding process…Because ViaSat submitted its waiver request in its [application] submitted into the FCC Auction System, rather than separately in the docket, other bidders and the general public have not had the opportunity to provide input on the request.

Satellite technology’s advantages enable broadband service in desperate locations and under impossible conditions. The disadvantage is that capability comes at a cost, in terms of dollars and particular service metrics. The FCC is trying to find ways to dial down the desperation and expand the possible. It’s not a competition between interested corporations. It’s a quest for knowledge that will benefit customers.