Microsoft’s Support For Starlink In FCC Petition Fell On Deaf Ears

Ramish Zafar
Starlink user terminal
SpaceX's Starlink satellite dish, 'DishyMcFlatface' in all her glory.

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Microsoft Corporation's bid to support Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) Starlink internet constellation in an FCC docket failed as the Commission adopted a new notice of proposed rulemaking last week. These rules are intended to govern the 12GHz wireless spectrum and outline whether satellite internet service providers will continue to have priority access to some parts or terrestrial users such as multi-video data distribution service (MVDDS) providers can secure access to chunks previously allocated to the satellite companies.

Microsoft Cites Potential Interference With Azure Modular Datacenter From Terrestrial 12GHz Use To FCC As Reason To Not Make New Rules

In late October last year, Microsoft and SpaceX joined forces to enable users of the former's Azure cloud computing platform to access SpaceX's satellite internet through a new Azure product which Microsoft termed as the Azure Modular Datacenter. Through Starlink, Microsoft will connect its MDC to its clients' data centers and ensure that all data-related needs can be fully met remotely.

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The battle between SpaceX and the MVDDS providers sits at the heart of Starlink's rollout as it concerns itself with the consumer terminals which Starlink users will use to connect with the satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These terminals use the 12GHz band for data downlink (satellite to the terminal), and SpaceX and other satellite internet providers have preferential access to the frequencies.

This access became the center of a 2016 rulemaking petition submitted by the MVDDS providers who asked the FCC to either revoke the preferential treatment that the satellite operators were offered or to kick them out of the spectrum completely. They based this argument on the fact that little to no development had taken place in the satellite internet arena and that coexistence between MVDDS (terrestrial) and satellite internet operations was impossible.

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

In its letter to the FCC Microsoft noted that since its Azure Modular Datacenters will also use the user terminals for connecting to SpaceX's satellites, and that the precise location of these terminals will not be known until the final stages of equipment setup. This, according to Microsoft, will leave its services open to interference from terrestrial operations should they also use the same frequency as the Starlink terminals.

Additionally, Microsoft also went on to argue that some of the Azure use cases will be particularly vulnerable to interference from other 12GHz users if the spectrum is shared with the MVDDS providers. These uses include emergency response and national security, with location sharing for the latter being impossible argues Microsoft due to disclosure concerns.

The company concluded its meeting with FCC representatives by repeating SpaceX's plea to switch the comment solicitation for this matter to a Notice of Inquiry instead of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and to reject the rulemaking petition. In its response that was made last week, the FCC did adopt an NPRM but left several areas such as whether to maintain the existing rules or to make new ones up for comment.

Microsoft and SpaceX have jointly tested Starlink and Azure, and the pair have also worked on developing missile-tracking satellites for the Pentagon. When questioned above Azure and Starlink's compatibility, SpaceX's chief operating officer Ms. Gwynne Shotwell responded in October that:

"Tom that is the perfect example on how leveraging Microsoft's infrastructure and capability with Starlink's point-to-point communication is the perfect example of how that provides an extraordinary capability for our customers. Basically, you have a center, a capability you put anywhere on Earth you need to get that data somewhere else, and having a satellite-based system you can get there without fiber. You don't need fiber, you basically talk to the satellites that we have in orbit. The satellites will talk to each other and get that data to the other point on Earth where it's needed."

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