SpaceX’s T-Mobile Deal Is A Checkmate To Get New Sats Approved By FCC

SPACEX-STARSHIP-T-MOBILE-AUGUST-2022
SpaceX's Starship rocket is visible in the background as it expands Starlink coverage to mobiles. Image: SpaceX

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As part of a highly anticipated announcement made yesterday, SpaceX's chief Mr. Elon Musk and T-Mobile's president and CEO Mr. Mike Sievert confirmed that the pair will join forces to provide mobile connectivity to T-Mobile's users through SpaceX's second-generation Starlink satellites. The announcement aims at eliminating cellular coverage gaps in the United States, and it will enable users to connect with the satellites without needing any extra equipment. At the event, Mr. Musk stressed the humanitarian benefits of this connectivity, as he shared that the new service will allow users stranded in remote locations to access coverage and end up potentially saving lives.

This service will be transmitted via SpaceX's second-generation satellites, confirmed Mr. Musk, and these spacecraft are currently waiting on approval by the FCC. SpaceX had originally planned to launch them with its existing Falcon 9 rockets, but it has requested the Commission to allow it to use its Starship next-generation rocket instead. Its rivals have objected to these efforts for a variety of reasons, and the announcement with T-Mobile bolsters its case at the FCC.

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The back and forth at the FCC for the second-generation spacecraft has been going on for months since SpaceX filed its modification application to the FCC last year. This application laid out two new plans for the second generation satellites, with the first relying exclusively on Starship and the second using the Falcon 9 for revised launch parameters over the original launch plan.

Soon after SpaceX submitted the application, its rivals in the satellite space raised a host of objections. Leading the charge was DISH Network, which is also trying to convince the FCC to open up the 12GHz band for two-way coverage - something which SpaceX vehemently opposes since it will cause a significant service downgrade for Starlink customers.

SpaceX and T-Mobile's executives at the announcement yesterday. Image: T-Mobile

DISH submitted studies to the FCC arguing that the new satellites will cause interference to DISH's service and that SpaceX was shifting the goalposts in its application. It was joined by others, such as Viasat, Kuiper, OneWeb and RS Access LLC, with each having its own set of concerns.

Viasat and OneWeb pointed out that the second generation satellite constellation that consists of more than 30,000 satellites poses a risk to public safety, risk of collisions and is anti-competitive as it locks others out of the ecosystem. RS Access LLC, who also wants the FCC to open up the 12GHz band pointed out that the application was incomplete and Kuiper stated that SpaceX has shared insufficient technical parameters for its satellites.

In response to these concerns, SpaceX's head of satellite policy Mr. David Goldman fighting an uneven fight, outlined that the constellation meets all of FCC's collision standards, his company has advanced standards in place to avoid accidents, and that SpaceX complies with all applicable interference standards. As an added bonus, he also shared that the laser links on these satellites will operate with 3 Watts of optical power and at 1,550 nanometers wavelength.

The Starship Super Heavy booster's first static fire test attempt earlier this month. Image: SpaceX

So perhaps it was quite telling that in the backdrop of Mr. Musk and Mr. Sievert's announcement, SpaceX's Starship prototypes that are hundreds of feet tall were also visible. The company's future hinges on Starship, not only because it will be responsible for building the second generation Starlink satellite constellation, but also because it is the vehicle responsible for landing NASA's astronauts on the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

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Musk confirmed that the T-Moble partnership will be met through the second-generation satellites, which might not launch until the second half of next year. Sievert was also cautious in providing a timeline for service, as he stated that the early stage will be available in "late 2023".

However, while the announcement will not bring immediate coverage, it is absolutely crucial to SpaceX's aforementioned fight at the FCC. When evaluating applications, the Commission loves proposals that 'broaden connectivity for inaccessible areas' and are for 'the public good'.

Both of these were also on Musk's mind, as he commented during the event that:

We've all read about somebody who's say been hiking and got lost and perhaps died of thirst or exposure or someone that got stuck in a blizzard or froze to death. You know you could conceivably get stranded on a desert island and be talking to a basketball. But now you can call for help. So the thing that I think is really profound about what we're announcing today is that it will save lives. And we will no longer read about these tragedies that happen where people get lost and if only they could have called for help they'd be okay. So I think what we're doing here is profound, it's going to massive improve people's convenience and it's going to save lives. So it's incredible.

Later on, the T-Mible executive outlined that the service will use his company's mid-band PCS spectrum, which consists of frequencies in the 1850-1990 Mhz range. This bit is crucial, as, through T-Mobile, SpaceX will join this spectrum with the AWS-4 mobile satellite service (MSS) spectrum The MSS spectrum covers frequencies ranging between 2000-2020 Mhz and 2180-2200 Mhz, and together, the pair will also be able to compete with DISH.

DISH's Project Genesis VoNR (Voice over New Radio) uses the AWS-4, AWS-H (1915-1920 Mhz, 1995-2000 MHz) and the lower 700 Mhz band for coverage, and in the future, SpaceX can also further team up with T-Mobile to gain access to nearby bands for the final frequency block. The MSS band is supported by limited vendors, and SpaceX has petitioned the FCC to allow it to. use this band to provide coverage to Americans in diverse geographical areas.

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