Even as SpaceX plans to launch another batch of satellites in its quest to provide ultrafast internet service from orbit, the company’s plan is running into interference on the ground.
Rivals, including Dish Network Corp. and RS Access LLC, want to use some of the same spectrum SpaceX covets for its satellite internet plan to launch terrestrial 5G services. The Federal Communications Commission, in deciding how to use the spectrum, will give an edge to space-based internet or terrestrial 5G—or somehow figure out a way to satisfy everyone.
The decision will “be a really interesting signal to investors and everyone else about where they should place their bets going forward,” said Tim Farrar, a satellite and telecom industry analyst at TMF Associates.
The spectrum fight underway in Washington shows that SpaceX’s Elon Musk faces political challenges of the old-fashioned kind, even as his company is poised to clear another technological hurdle with an upcoming launch of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying 57 satellites for the internet plan dubbed Starlink.
At stake in the spectrum fight is who gets to fulfill the growing demand for broadband as consumers cut the cords of traditional cable and satellite TV and seek ever-more Wi-Fi to work from home, watch programs, and play games. The number of U.S. networked devices will reach 4.6 billion by 2023 from 2.7 billion in 2018, Cisco Systems Inc. said in its annual Internet report.
To satisfy the demand, Dish and RS Access, a telecom company funded by billionaire Michael Dell’s investment firm MSD Capital, want the FCC to take action. Dish since 2016 has had a request before the commission to open the spectrum known as the 12 GHz Band to mobile broadband, rather than reserving it only for satellite-based services.
The petition languished, though burgeoning demand for 5G spectrum, and SpaceX’s satellite plans, have brought it out of mothballs.
The 12 GHz Band is “essential” for the Starlink plan that envisions about 4,400 satellites circling the globe to provide internet service, SpaceX told the FCC in a June 4 filing. The band shouldn’t be used up for terrestrial 5G, the company said.
In addition, SpaceX has asked the FCC to let more than 2,800 of its satellites orbit closer to earth than is currently allowed, in part so that internet signals will reach customers faster.
The request to lower the orbit, and SpaceX’s opposition to allowing 5G on the 12 GHz Band, has spurred Dish and RS Access to push back.
If SpaceX gets its way, ground-based 5G and existing services such as satellite TV will suffer, the companies have told the FCC. They’re calling on the commission to quickly reject SpaceX’s orbit request and to start a rulemaking to weigh opening the band for 5G.
“SpaceX’s proposed license modification would turn the 12 GHz Band into a 5G wasteland for the foreseeable future,” RS Access told the FCC in a filing June 11.
An FCC spokesperson declined to comment on what the commission will do. Dish declined to comment. SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment.
V. Noah Campbell, the CEO of RS Access, said in an interview that the 12 GHz Band is critical for broadband because it “would more than double the FCC mid-band frequency pipeline for 5G services.”
SpaceX scrubbed a blastoff planned Friday afternoon and will announce a new target date, the company said on its Twitter feed. The “team needed additional time for pre-launch checkouts,” SpaceX said.
The 12 GHz Band is authorized for satellite communications, satellite TV, and fixed—as opposed to mobile—broadband operations. Utilization of the band has lagged, however, because companies say the FCC has overly restrictive rules.
In 2016, Dish and a number of smaller broadband providers aimed to spur utilization of the band by asking the FCC to modify their 12 GHz licenses so that they could use them for 5G services.
As SpaceX’s efforts intensified debate over the 2016 petition, telecom industry groups jumped into the fray, backing Dish.
“With the coming communications shift to 5G and consumers’ increasing demand for faster and more reliable wireless services, it is essential to make additional spectrum available for commercial use,” three telecom trade groups, including INCOMPAS, which counts Dish as a member, and public interest groups New America and Public Knowledge, wrote in a May 26 letter to the FCC.
The license that Dish seeks could help it set up its own 5G network. Federal regulators have sought such additional competition to offset potential harms from T-Mobile US Inc.'s acquisition of Sprint Corp. earlier this year.
Modifying 12 GHz licenses also would address the wireless industry’s calls for the FCC to open up more mid-band airwaves for 5G.
Next-generation networks will rely on a mix of high-, mid-, and low-band airwaves. The agency currently plans to auction about 350 MHz of mid-band airwaves to support 5G networks, well below what other countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan provide.
The 12 GHz Band could offer another 500 MHz of mid-band spectrum to power 5G services, RS Access’ Campbell said.
Opening up the 12 GHz Band to 5G could be easier than freeing up some other mid-band spectrum because there are no federal users, Campbell said. That would likely eliminate the possibility of fierce objections from other government agencies, he said.
SpaceX argues that 5G services using the same airwaves as its satellites would cause harmful interference. It also would undercut billions of dollars SpaceX has invested in orbit-based internet, the company said.
SpaceX has already launched hundreds of satellites and plans to start offering internet service in the U.S. and Canada later this year.
The company argues that satellite internet services hold more promise on the airwaves than potential 5G. SpaceX’s Starlink will target vast rural areas now without service, while 5G would likely focus on urban zones because 12 GHz signals don’t travel very far on land, the company said.
“Moving forward with the 2016 Petition risks impeding near-term service to Americans in all parts of the country in exchange for an uncertain benefit for only those living in the most concentrated areas,” SpaceX said in its June filing.
SpaceX in April asked the FCC to let 2,800 of its satellites orbit 550 kilometers (342 miles) above the Earth rather than the currently allowed 1,200 kilometers (746 miles). The FCC initially approved all 4,400 of the planned satellites for orbits of 1,200 kilometers before granting the company’s request in April 2019 for 1,600 of them to orbit at 550 kilometers.
RS Access and Dish say it’s possible for 5G and satellites to coexist without disruption, but not at SpaceX’s proposed lower altitude for the orbiters.
Subsidies at Stake
SpaceX says satellites operating at lower altitude will reduce risk of orbital debris and enable internet services with lower latency or lag time. That could prove crucial for the company’s effort to receive some of the $16 billion in rural broadband funding the FCC will award through an auction in October.
The FCC subsidies, from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, are aimed at deploying broadband that otherwise would be too unprofitable for companies to provide for millions of households .
No satellite operator has ever qualified as a low latency broadband service, which puts companies such as SpaceX at a disadvantage when competing for the subsidies against providers that can offer faster connections.
SpaceX argues that its Starlink service is capable of meeting the FCC’s low latency rules of less than 100 milliseconds because its satellites will orbit much closer to Earth than existing services offered by Viasat Inc. and Hughes Network Systems LLC.
By additionally lowering the orbit as SpaceX requested, the company said it would be able to exceed the FCC’s rules by reducing latency to 50 milliseconds.
SpaceX must submit an application to compete in the subsidy auction by July 15. The company is required to provide “high-level technical information” to demonstrate that it can deliver high-speed broadband, according to the FCC’s website.
Whether the FCC supports SpaceX’s requests on the 12 GHz Band and orbiting altitude will be good indicators as to how the commission views the future of satellite broadband, Farrar said.