FCC rejects SpaceX’s request for spectrum


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that the company’s requests “do not substantially comply with Commission requirements”

The FCC’s Space Bureau has rejected SpaceX’s requests to use spectrum in the 1.6 GHz, 2 GHz, and 2.4 GHz bands to provide mobile services via its next generation Starlink satellites.

The regulator said that they are currently not looking to allow additional satellite players access to these bands, hence the application itself was invalid.

“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,” explained the FCC in its ruling.

According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, Starlink currently has 5,504 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in orbit around the Earth, 5,442 of which are operational. These satellites currently provide connectivity to customer devices via ground-based Starlink terminals, typically deployed on top of customers’ buildings or vehicles.

However, Elon Musk and SpaceX have far greater ambitions for the next generation of Starlink satellites, which are being equipped with technology allowing them to connect directly to consumers devices, without the need for a Starlink terminal.

Six of these new satellites were launched in January to begin testing, with the first direct-to-device text sent from space using spectrum from US mobile giant T-Mobile just a week later.

Ultimately, SpaceX plans to launch 7,500 of these upgraded satellites, allowing them to provide global direct-to-device services.

To do this effectively, however, the satellites will need access to spectrum. As such, in February 2023 SpaceX filed an application with the FCC, seeking access to spectrum in the 1.6 GHz, 2 GHz, and 2.4 GHz bands to provide mobile-satellite services (MSS).

The request was immediately controversial. The 1.6GHz and 2.4 GHz bands are currently occupied by Globalstar and Iridium satellites, respectively, with little overlap. Meanwhile, DISH (recently reabsorbed into parent company EchoStar) provides satellite services over the 2 GHz band spectrum.

Both DISH and Globalstar wrote to the FCC to oppose SpaceX’s proposal, saying that the addition of a new satellite player in these bands could produce interference for existing services, including access to emergency services as provided by Globalstar.

SpaceX, on the other hand, says that “any modern, capable, and well-designed” satellite system can co-exist in these bands without fear of interference.

Ultimately, however, it was not these arguments themselves that led the FCC to reject the SpaceX’s request, but rather the nature of the request itself. As the FCC explained, there is simply no process for introducing new MSS players under the current framework.

“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 and, with respect to operations in the 2020-2025 MHz band, conclude that the remaining request for uplink operations only does not constitute a comprehensive proposal necessary to sustain a satellite application, as required under Commission rules,” explained the FCC.

However, all hope is not lost for SpaceX. The lengthy application process seems to have indicated to the FCC that the current regulatory framework needs updating. SpaceX is currently petitioning the FCC to revise the rules when it comes to sharing the relevant spectrum, with the FCC issuing two public notices seeking comment on the matter earlier this week.

“The framework the commission adopted 30 years ago to facilitate multiple-operator sharing in the Band remains frozen in time, conceptualized around the almost entirely defunct MSS systems originally proposed in 1994,” argued SpaceX in a statement. “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.”

Naturally, the likes of DISH and Globalstar will continue to oppose such a request, but if SpaceX can demonstrate their technology will not cause interference to existing services, it seems unlikely that the FCC would continue to oppose such a development.

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