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After suffering $1b subsidy snub, Starlink lands $2m US Air Force deal

Always look on the bright (oh God, they are so bright) side of life

The US Air Force is giving $1.9 million to SpaceX to test if Starlink can support military bases in Europe and Africa.

An official, not-the-kind-from-Mar-a-Lago document [PDF] outlining the contract states that SpaceX's satellite broadband biz was chosen because it was the only company that had a wide enough coverage. Other businesses, including OneWeb, Amazon Kuiper, and Telesat, with low-Earth-orbit (LEO) internet satellites do not have the infrastructure to support Uncle Sam's facilities in Europe and Africa yet. OneWeb's service, for example, will only support regions "north of 50 degrees north latitude" later this year in November, excluding Africa.

"After extensive research it was found that SpaceX Starlink is the only vendor able to provide this specialized communication service in the current areas of operation in the required time," according to the government's contract justification document, as reported by SpaceNews.

"Starlink is the only LEO constellation communications company that currently provides this commercial satellite solution with services to Europe and Africa. Starlink is also the only LEO satellite network provider that is currently being used in a contested environment: Ukraine."

SpaceX is to start providing its internet service for Uncle Sam from August 2022 to the end of July 2023 at expected download speeds of 500Mbps. The company, infamous for its night-sky-blighting satellites, will support two types of services: fixed site, where individual Starlink cells with a 22-kilometer radius will be installed at specific locations; and portable, where the Air Force can move these cells around and access broadband from different locations. 

The contract is part of the Air Force Research Lab's (ARFL) efforts to test commercial satellite network providers under its Global Lightning program. The goal is to "generate different tiered solutions to DoD users," the document continued. "AFRL has discovered that in a contested environment, LEO constellations are much more resilient to signal jamming and also provide the low latency required to support tactical missions," it said.

Although SpaceX is the sole provider to the Air Force's 37 Airlift Squadron, competition will get tougher as rivals launch more and more of their own satellites into space.

The contract deal comes after the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided against giving Musk – who has already received billions in government support – $866 million in public funding to bring satellite coverage to rural America.

"After careful legal, technical, and policy review, we are rejecting these applications," said FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel, adding: "We must put scarce universal service dollars to their best possible use as we move into a digital future that demands ever more powerful and faster networks." ®

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