SpaceX is pulling out all the stops to prevent Dish and other wireless companies from using the same radio frequencies as its internet-from-space Starlink satellites. Today, in a rare media call with reporters, SpaceX representatives reiterated how damaging they believe it would be for Starlink users if the Federal Communications Commission were to open up the 12GHz frequency band — which SpaceX’s satellites currently use — to other terrestrial uses like 5G.
“Essentially, the band would become unusable,” David Goldman, senior director of satellite policy at SpaceX, said during the press call. “It would potentially end services for customers.”
Dish hopes to use the spectrum to build out its new 5G network and has argued that the deployment would be a win for consumer internet access.
SpaceX’s concerns began back in January of 2021, when the FCC opened up the possibility of using the 12GHz band for other uses beyond its current capabilities. SpaceX and other satellite operators, including Dish Network, have been relying on the 12GHz band for years to operate their satellites and, in SpaceX’s case, its Starlink mega-constellation. But when the FCC put out the call, Dish and a company called RS Access, which is backed by billionaire Michael Dell, came up with studies for ways they could use 12GHz for terrestrial 5G use.
Recently, SpaceX has made it abundantly clear that the company does not want the FCC to open up the 12GHz band to 5G. The company filed a letter with the FCC arguing that allowing 12GHz for 5G use would cause Starlink users relying on the band to experience harmful interference 77 percent of the time, as well as total outages of the service 74 percent of the time. The company also sent out an email to Starlink users, encouraging them to send messages to the FCC and relevant lawmakers to urge them to stop making any changes to the 12GHz band. SpaceX claims that approximately 100,000 people sent messages after that prompt went out — and the company argues that the lack of public support for Dish means the expanded spectrum isn’t necessary.
“We haven’t seen anything from either Dish or Dell where they’ve been able to get any customers to file in support of their service,” Goldman said. “Likely, that is because they don’t really have a service. This is a spectrum speculation play, and it is not really about providing service. This is about lining their pockets with new spectrum rights at the expense of the people who currently use the band.”
Dish is eagerly looking for more spectrum it can put to use for wireless internet as it builds out a nationwide 5G network. The service, which has launched in 120 cities so far across the US, has to reach 70 percent of the US by June 2023 to comply with obligations to the FCC; otherwise, the company faces steep fines. Its network currently reaches only 22 percent of the population.
SpaceX’s concerns about the 12GHz band are exaggerated and wrong, according to Dish, RS Access, and a consortium of other companies known as the 5G for 12 GHz Coalition. They’ve argued that SpaceX sent a “manipulated filing” to the FCC about the kind of interference Starlink users would experience. “This tactic, which is commonly used by Elon Musk, is not only disingenuous, but it promulgates an anti-5G narrative that is harmful to American consumers who deserve greater competition, connectivity options and innovation,” the Coalition wrote in a statement sent to The Verge.
Fighting against that narrative, SpaceX is arguing that RS Access’ own study found that 5G use of the 12GHz band would cause interference. “Starlink terminals within the 5G coverage area typically suffered an excess,” the study said, according to a new SpaceX filing with the FCC. SpaceX claims that this means it is a unanimous technical finding that using 12GHz for 5G would cause disruption.
SpaceX also had multiple prominent Starlink users on today’s media call explaining how much the internet satellite service has benefited them. SpaceX says it has more than 400,000 active Starlink users but that the service potentially reaches millions of people.
“We are optimistic that this is going to go our way, and the FCC is going to maintain the existing successful rule,” Goldman said. “But what the technical studies show is that if that were not the case, that would be hugely detrimental to the millions of people who use these services.”