FCC Halts SpaceX Spectrum Request: Merits and Risks Evaluated

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The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Space Bureau has put a halt to SpaceX’s request to utilize spectrum in the 1.6 GHz, 2 GHz, and 2.4 GHz bands. According to the FCC, the application was deemed invalid due to the current policy of not permitting more satellite service providers access to these bands.

The FCC elaborated, “SpaceX’s application was unacceptable when it was filed because the commission is currently not accepting applications for new mobile-satellite services (MSS) entrants in the 1.6/2.4 GHz and 2 GHz bands.”

Despite these regulatory hurdles, SpaceX currently commands a massive fleet of 5,504 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell. With 5,442 of them operational, these satellites successfully grant consumer devices connectivity via ground-based Starlink terminals.

Nonetheless, SpaceX has set its sights even higher. The company is actively preparing the next generation of Starlink satellites, intending for them to interact directly with customers’ devices, thereby eliminating the need for a Starlink terminal. Six of these revolutionary satellites began testing in January, with the first direct-to-device text, using spectrum from US mobile giant T-Mobile, dispatched just a week later from space.

To bring this bold vision to life and provide global direct-to-device services, SpaceX someday plans to deploy 7,500 advanced satellites. However, the access to spectrum is crucial for this initiative. Consequently, in February 2023, SpaceX submitted an application to the FCC, pleading for access to spectrum within the 1.6 GHz, 2 GHz, and 2.4 GHz bands to offer MSS.

This proposal was contentious from the start, particularly considering the 1.6GHz and 2.4 GHz bands are already being utilized by Globalstar and Iridium satellites respectively. Meanwhile, DISH, which was recently reintegrated into its parent company EchoStar, offers satellite services across the 2 GHz band spectrum. Both DISH and Globalstar have voiced opposition to SpaceX’s request, voicing concerns about potential interference with existing services, including emergency services as provided by Globalstar.

SpaceX remains confident that a “modern, capable, and well-designed” satellite system can coexist in these bands without fear of interference.

Yet, according to the FCC, the rejection of SpaceX’s request was less about the potential for interference and more to do with the nature of the request. The FCC remarked, “We conclude that the requests in the Modification Application do not substantially comply with Commission requirements established in rulemaking proceedings which determined that the 1.6/2.4 GHz and 2 GHz bands are not available for additional MSS applications.”

Nevertheless, SpaceX may still have a chance to succeed. The company’s lengthy application process has signaled to the FCC that the current regulatory framework may need revisions, prompting SpaceX to petition the FCC to rethink the rules around spectrum sharing.

In a statement, SpaceX urged, “The commission now has the opportunity to modernize the rules for the 1.6/2.4 GHz Band to reflect significant technology developments and new entrants poised to bring renewed competition and consumer value in the satellite market.”

As this debate progresses, it is likely that firms like DISH and Globalstar will continue to oppose such a request. However, if SpaceX can showcase that their technology will not interfere with existing operations, it seems improbable that the FCC would remain opposed to such a development.

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