Elon Musk’s $70 Million Starlink Gamble Takes Heavy Fire From Opponents

SpaceX Starlink User Terminal
Image: darkpenguin22/Reddit

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At the close of last month, SpaceX started to send out invites for the beta program of its highly anticipated Starlink satellite-based internet service. Starlink uses satellites in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to transfer data between user terminals, ground stations and internet servers to overcome the limitations terrestrial internet providers have when expanding their coverage to far-flung and hard to reach areas.

Yet, even as it continues to rapidly expand its ground station and satellite coverage, SpaceX is fighting a crucial battle within the halls of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This battle will determine Starlink's future, particularly when it comes to the user terminals that the company has started to send out to those who signed up for the network service's beta participation program.

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This battle heated up soon after Starlink's beta participation program rolled out, and the company started to share the service's statistics with the FCC. It concerns itself with 500MHz of the 12GHz spectrum, which is a thorny point of contention between SpaceX, Multi-Video Data Distribution Service (MVDDS) and direct broadcast service (DBC) providers. SpaceX uses this spectrum for data downlink to its consumer user terminals, and the MVDDS providers want to use it for two-way services, which the FCC's current rules prohibit.

As Starlink rolled out, the rhetoric of Dell's RS Access and Dish TV became scathing, with both not only stepping up their counter-arguments to SpaceX's but also insinuating the company of being disingenuous when it comes to sharing data to determine potential interference from Starlink and probing the feasibility of sharing the 12GHz spectrum.

Slide 4 from SpaceX's presentation given to the FCC at the end of July highlights the criticality of the 12GHz band for Starlink. (Image: SpaceX Ex Parte July 31 2020, FCC Docket WM RM-11768)

RS Access, LLC Argues That SpaceX's Starlink Investment Does Not Guarantee Immunity From New Spectrum Sharing Rules

Leading the charge is RS Access LLC, a startup backed by Michael Dell's money management firm MSD Capital. While back and forth between RS Access and SpaceX has been going on for quite a while now, with us having covered some of it in the past as well, the former's latest comments to the FCC were striking both in their tone and in their breadth, as RS Access looked to all-encompassingly dismantle SpaceX's argument in support of 12GHz use for NGSO FSS (Non-Geostationary Fixed Satellite Service) use.

This argument, summarized, was based on three pillars. Firstly, the company cited extensive investment worth $70 million in manufacturing Starlink user terminals being at risk if the 2016 petition is granted. Secondly, it cited a lack of development in the 12GHz band by MVDDS providers and compared it to extensive Starlink deployment as a demonstration of why satellite providers can use the spectrum more efficiently than terrestrial providers can. And thirdly, it claimed that terrestrial deployment in the band is "years" away, and therefore rule changes favoring MVDDS providers will harm development in the band.

RS Access' letter to the FCC takes aim at SpaceX's claim of its investment being at risk by stating that this is irrelevant since the 2016 petition was filed before SpaceX was granted its Starlink license. Specifically, its chief Noah Campbell states:

How much SpaceX has spent on equipment or user terminals is irrelevant. SpaceX knew before investing that its access to the 12 GHz Band could change pending resolution of the Petition....While SpaceX is free to disregard the Commission’s disclaimers and invest considerable sums of money in the 12 GHz Band, the company should not be shielded from the reasonably foreseeable consequences that parties have brought to SpaceX’s attention for many years. Allowing such brazen gamesmanship would create bad incentives and encourage incumbents to frustrate future spectrum repurposing efforts.

Defending the need to issue a new rulemaking in tune with technological changes over the years, Mr. Campbell also paints SpaceX's arguments as self-serving and stripping the 5G sector its ability to innovate in the 12GHz band. Services providers prefer this band for 5G due to its propagation characteristics, little federal usage and 500MHz of a uniquely continuous spectrum.

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Slide 11 from SpaceX's presentation given to the FCC at the end of July summarizing the company's opposition to the 2016 petition. Image: SpaceX Ex Parte July 31 2020, FCC Docket WM RM-11768)

Dish Complains To FCC That SpaceX Is Ignoring Its Emails Requesting Data To Determine Interference Risk From Proposed Starlink Modification

Not only is SpaceX defending Starlink from the 2016 petition, but the company is also addressing fresh concerns following its decision to lower the altitudes of the satellites from earlier values that it proposed to the FCC. This shift has caused companies including Dish TV to raise concerns of interference with their services.

At this front, Dish is now asking the FCC to force SpaceX to provide data that will allow Dish to determine whether the Starlink modification will create interference with its services. The communication between SpaceX's director of satellite policy Mr. David Goldman and Ms. Alison Minea, director and senior corporate counsel at Dish started in late July and lasted until September according to the company's FCC complaint filed in late September.

This letter suggests that while the parties continued to communicate until early September, during which SpaceX raised its concerns about Starlink data confidentiality. While both parties agreed to a non-disclosure agreement, they disagreed on SpaceX's request that Dish should withhold any non-ITU-R (International Telecommunications Union) compliance conclusions from the FCC. In other words, SpaceX asked Dish to share only those conclusions that were required to determine whether the modification would follow ITU regulations and withhold any other conclusions that Dish would reach.

Dish disagreed with this and in a conference call on September 3rd, the parties continued to disagree on whether SpaceX's data should be used for studying "interference risk". In other words, while SpaceX wanted Dish to use Starlink equivalent power flux density (EPFD) data to only determine the service's compliance with ITU standards, Dish wanted to use it to also reach conclusions about the risk of interference.

Original parameters:     
Orbital Planes:7232856
Altitude in kilometers:5501,1001,1301,2751,325
Inclination - (i):53°53.8°74°81°70°
Modified parameters
Orbital Planes:72723664
Altitude in kilometers:550540570560569
Inclination - (i):53°53.2°70°97.6°97.6°

Mr. Goldman, in his meetings with FCC officials earlier this month, commented on the MVDDS providers' latest set of arguments in favor of the 2016 petition. The executive cited industry and tribal opposition to the petition and stated that the providers are mis-insinuating opposition as a need for the FCC to expedite or grant a ruling. He also took a jab at Dish and stated by following the company's line of argument, opposition to any request for rulemaking would imply that rulemaking is necessary.

Additionally, while he admitted that SpaceX's Starlink license grant did come with the condition of being subject to future FCC rule changes, he stated that to extrapolate this to imply that an operator should not deploy in frequency bands under dispute would render most FCC rulings ineffective. More importantly, Mr. Goldman also pointed out that, "the Commission granted SpaceX a license with no such condition [that deployments are subject to future rule changes] just this year [EMPHASIS ADDED on both counts] to operate up to one million user terminals in the 12 GHz Band," implying that perhaps the Commission is sympathetic to SpaceX's investment.

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