At the end of last month, SpaceX began inviting its much-anticipated Testlink satellite Internet service,media reported. Starlink uses low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to transfer data between user terminals, ground stations and Internet servers to overcome the limitations of terrestrial Internet providers in extending coverage to remote and hard-to-reach areas.
However, even as it continues to rapidly expand ground stations and satellite coverage, SpaceX is in the halls of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a crucial battle. The battle will determine the future of Starlink’s program, especially when it comes to the company’s starting to offer terminals to users who have signed up for the Web Services Beta engagement program.
The fight heated up shortly after Starlink’s beta engagement program was launched, and the company began sharing service statistics with the FCC. It focuses on 500MHz in the 12GHz spectrum, a thorny point of contentious contentious between SpaceX, MVDDS, and Direct Broadcast Services (DBC) providers. SpaceX is using this spectrum for data downsliding to its consumer user terminals, while MVDDS providers want to use it for two-way services, which the FCC’s current rules prohibit.
With starlink’s launch, Dell’s RS Access and Dish TV’s rhetoric became sharp, not only reinforcing the rebuttal to SpaceX, but also insinuation that the company was dishonest in sharing data to determine Starlink’s potential interference and exploring the feasibility of sharing the 12GHz spectrum.
Leading the way is RS Access LLC, a startup backed by Michael Dell’s money management firm MSD Capital. Although RS Access and SpaceX have been in contact for some time, the former’s latest comments about the FCC are striking both in tone and breadth, as RS Access wants to break down SpaceX’s argument that 12GHz supports NGSO FSS (non-stationary fixed satellite services).
This argument, to sum up, is based on three aspects. First, the company cited the risks of a broad $70 million investment in starlink user terminals if the 2016 application is approved. Second, it cites the lack of development of MVDDS vendors in the 12GHz band and compares it with extensive Starlink deployments to demonstrate why satellite vendors can use spectrum more efficiently than ground suppliers. Third, it claims that the ground deployment of the band will take “several years” and that changes in rules favouring MVDDS providers will undermine the development of the band.
RS Access’s letter to the FCC addressed SpaceX’s claim that its investments were at risk, noting that it had nothing to do with it, since the 2016 application was filed before SpaceX obtained Starlink’s license. Specifically, its director, Noah Campbell, said:
It is irrelevant how much SpaceX spends on devices or user terminals. SpaceX knew before the investment that its rights to the 12GHz band could change before the petition was resolved…. While SpaceX can ignore the commission’s disclaimer and invest heavily in the 12GHz band, it should not be shielded from the reasonably foreseeable consequences that have come to SpaceX’s attention over the years. Allowing this brazen game behavior will create bad incentives and encourage existing companies to thwart future spectrum reuse efforts.
Campbell defended the need to issue new rules to accommodate years of technological change, portraying SpaceX’s argument as self-interested and depriving the 5G division of its ability to innovate in the 12GHz band. Service providers prefer this band for 5G because of its propagation characteristics, rare federal use and 500MHz’s unique continuous spectrum.
SpaceX not only defended starlink’s plan in a 2016 petition, but the company is also addressing new concerns over its decision to lower the satellite’s altitude from its earlier proposal to the FCC. The shift has raised concerns among companies, including Dish TV, that their services are being disrupted.
In this regard, Dish is now asking the FCC to force SpaceX to provide data that will allow Dish to determine whether changes to the Starlink project will interfere with its services. According to the company’s FCC complaint filed at the end of September, communication between Mr. David Goldman, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, and Ms. Alison Minea, Dish’s director and senior corporate adviser, began at the end of July and continued until September.
The letter indicates that while the two sides continued to communicate until early September, SpaceX raised concerns about the confidentiality of data from the Starlink project. Although both sides agreed to a nondisclosure agreement, they disagreed over SpaceX’s request that Dish withhold any non-ITC compliance conclusions from the FCC. In other words, SpaceX requires Dish to share only the conclusions needed to determine whether the changes will comply with ITF rules, without disclosing any other conclusions Dish will draw.
Dish disagreed, and on a September 3 conference call, the two sides remained divided over whether SpaceX’s data should be used to study “interference risks.” In other words, SpaceX wants Dish to use Starlink equivalent power pass density (EPFD) data only to determine whether the service meets ITA standards, while Dish wants to use it to draw conclusions about the risk of interference.
Goldman commented on the latest set of arguments from MVDDS providers in support of the 2016 application when he met with FCC officials earlier this month. The executive cited industry and tribal objections to the petition and said suppliers misled the FCC about the need to expedite or award a ruling. He also attacked Dish and said that, according to the company’s argument, opposing any rule-making request would mean that rules needed to be made.
In addition, while he acknowledged that SpaceX’s Starlink license grant did come with conditions subject to future changes in FCC rules, he said that inferring this to imply that operators should not deploy in disputed bands would invalidate most FCC rulings. More importantly, Goldman noted that “just this year, the committee issued a license to SpaceX, but no such conditions are subject to future rule changes (both points emphasized) that could operate up to 1 million user terminals in the 12GHz band”, meaning that the committee may be sympathetic to SpaceX’s investment.