SpaceX satellite internet plan hits dish ground interference

Despite SpaceX planning to launch another batch of satellites on Friday in its quest to provide ultrafast Internet service from orbit, the company’s plan is encountering interference on the ground.

Rivals, including Dish Network Corp. and RS Access LLC, want to use some of the same SpaceX spectrum greed for their satellite internet plan to launch 5G terrestrial services. The Federal Communications Commission, in deciding how to use spectrum, will either give space-based or terrestrial 5G-based internet an edge, or somehow find 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, satellite and telecom analyst at TMF Associates.

The spectrum fight underway in Washington shows that SpaceX’s Elon Musk faces old-fashioned political challenges, even as his company is poised to overcome another technological hurdle on Friday afternoon by launching the Falcon 9 rocket carrying 57 satellites to the internet plan called Starlink.

At stake is who can meet the growing demand for broadband as consumers cut cables for traditional cable and satellite television and increasingly search for Wi-Fi to work from home, watch programs and play games. According to Cisco Systems Inc.’s annual Internet report, the number of networked devices in the US will reach 4.6 billion in 2023 compared to 2.7 billion in 2018.

To meet the demand, Dish and RS Access, a telecommunications company funded by billionaire investment firm MSD Capital, Michael Dell, want the FCC to take action. Dish since 2016 has had a request to the commission to open up the spectrum known as the 12 GHz band to mobile broadband, rather than reserving it only for satellite-based services.

The request languished, although the growing demand for 5G spectrum and SpaceX’s satellite plans have taken it out of mothballs.

The 12 GHz band is “essential” to the Starlink plan, which envisions some 4,400 satellites moving around the world to provide internet service, SpaceX told the FCC in a June 4 presentation. The band should not be used for terrestrial 5G, the company said.

In addition, SpaceX has asked the FCC to allow more than 2,800 of its satellites to orbit closer to the ground than is currently allowed, in part so that Internet signals reach customers faster.

The request to drop orbit, and SpaceX’s opposition to allowing 5G in the 12 GHz band, has spurred Dish and RS Access to back down.

If SpaceX gets away with it, terrestrial 5G and existing services such as satellite television will suffer, the companies told the FCC. They ask the commission to quickly reject SpaceX’s orbit request and begin regulation to weigh the band’s opening for 5G.

“The license modification proposed by SpaceX would make the 12 GHz band a 5G wasteland for the foreseeable future,” RS Access told the FCC in a document filed on June 11.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on what the commission will do. Dish declined to comment. SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

V. Noah Campbell, CEO of RS Access, said in an interview that the 12 GHz band is critical to broadband because it “would more than double the FCC’s midband frequency pipeline for 5G services.”

Spurring 5G

The 12 GHz band is licensed for satellite communications, satellite TV, and fixed broadband operations, rather than mobile. However, use of the band has been delayed because companies say the FCC has overly restrictive rules.

In 2016 Dish and several smaller broadband providers aimed to stimulate band utilization 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 on the 2016 petition, telecommunications industry groups jumped into the fray, supporting Dish.

“With the upcoming shift to 5G communications and the growing demand from consumers for faster and more reliable wireless services, it is essential to make additional spectrum available for commercial use,” three telecommunications business groups, including INCOMPAS, which considers Dish as a member, and Public Interest Groups New America and Public Knowledge, wrote in a May 26 letter to the FCC.

The license Dish is looking for could help you establish your own 5G network. Federal regulators have sought such additional competition to compensate for possible damages from the acquisition of Sprint Corp. by T-Mobile US Inc. earlier this year.

Modifying the 12 GHz licenses would also address calls from the wireless industry for the FCC to open more mid-band waves for 5G.

Next generation networks will depend on a combination of high, medium and low band waves. The agency currently plans to auction around 350 MHz of midband waves to support 5G networks, well below what other countries like China, South Korea and Japan provide.

The 12 GHz band could offer another 500 MHz of midband spectrum to power 5G services, Campbell of RS Access said.

Opening the 12GHz band to 5G might be easier than unlocking 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’s concerns

SpaceX argues that 5G services using the same airwaves as its satellites would cause harmful interference. It would also cut billions of dollars that SpaceX has invested in the orbiting Internet, the company said.

SpaceX has already launched hundreds of satellites and plans to start offering internet services in the United States and Canada later this year.

The company argues that satellite internet services are more promising on the airwaves than potential 5G. SpaceX’s Starlink will target vast rural areas now without service, while 5G would likely target urban areas because 12 GHz signals do not travel very far on land, the company said.

“Moving ahead with the 2016 Petition runs the risk of short-term service to Americans in all parts of the country in exchange for an uncertain benefit only for those who live in the most concentrated areas,” SpaceX said in its presentation of June.

SpaceX asked the FCC in April to allow 2,800 of its satellites to orbit 550 kilometers (342 miles) above Earth instead of the 1,200 kilometers currently allowed (746 miles). Initially, the FCC approved the 4,400 satellites planned for 1,200-kilometer orbits before accepting the company’s request in April 2019 for 1,600 of them to orbit 550 kilometers.

RS Access and Dish say 5G and satellites may coexist without interruption, but not at the lowest altitude proposed by SpaceX for orbiters.

Grants at stake

SpaceX says satellites operating at lower altitudes will reduce the risk of orbital debris and enable Internet services with less latency or delay. That could prove crucial to the company’s effort to receive some of the $ 16 billion in rural broadband funds that the FCC will award through an auction in October.

The FCC grants from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund are intended to roll out broadband that would not otherwise be profitable for companies to support millions of households.

No satellite operator has been rated as a low-latency broadband service, putting companies like SpaceX at a disadvantage when competing for 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 the existing services offered by Viasat Inc. and Hughes Network Systems LLC.

By further reducing the orbit as requested by SpaceX, the company said it could exceed FCC rules by reducing latency to 50 milliseconds.

SpaceX must submit an application to compete in the subsidy auction by July 15. The company must provide “high-level technical information” to demonstrate that it can offer high-speed broadband, according to the FCC website.

Whether the FCC supports SpaceX requests in the 12 GHz band and orbiting altitude will be good indicators of how the commission sees the future of satellite broadband, Farrar said.