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‘Super shady and unethical’: Why billionaires Elon Musk and Michael Dell are squabbling over radio spectrum

June 22, 2022, 3:50 PM UTC

SpaceX warned customers of Starlink, its satellite-based broadband provider, that they could suffer potentially “devastating interference” in their service should a rival piggyback on their signal to offer 5G mobile telecommunications.

Since all wireless data is carried via electromagnetic waves, governments have carved up the entire spectrum and auctioned off radio frequencies measured in hertz for specific services including satellite communication. 

Elon Musk’s company argues that Dish Network and RS Access’s plan to offer 5G in Starlink’s workhorse 12 gigahertz bandwidth would subject its service to full outages whenever its ground-based stations are transmitting. (RS Access is an affiliate of tech entrepreneur Michael Dell.)

Since this is 74% of the time, according to Starlink analysis, it would effectively deny Starlink’s U.S. customers their service.

SpaceX’s subsidiary markets itself as the best broadband provider for consumers in remote areas otherwise unable to surf at fast speeds. Starlink recently provided service to Ukraine at the behest of the government in Kyiv, whose communications were hobbled by Russia’s destructive invasion.

To protect those who have little other option for internet connectivity, SpaceX now wants the federal government to step in and block the duo’s attempt.

“A high-power terrestrial network would blow out anyone using the high-sensitivity equipment satellite consumers must use to receive signals,” wrote David Goldman, the company’s senior director of satellite policy, in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

SpaceX urged the commission to investigate whether Dish and RS Access filed intentionally misleading reports, but Goldman reserved his real criticism for the latter, which counts Dell’s personal wealth management company, MSD Capital, as a partner.

“RS Access is backed by a known spectrum flipper who made hundreds of millions of dollars selling low-power television stations in the incentive auction without adding new services for anyone,” Goldman wrote.

The competing duo had commissioned a study by RKF Engineering Solutions that allegedly demonstrated terrestrial 5G can readily share the 12 GHz band with services provided by satellites in low earth orbit like those operated by Starlink.

SpaceX contends however that the conclusions were “riddled with errors and faulty assumptions.“ This prompted a reevaluation by RKF with two key changes made to its modeling “to remove any doubt.”

Once again it determined ground-based mobile broadband could coexist with LEO satellites that are not in geostationary orbit, known as NGSO. 

“NGSO service does not yet operate at scale, and its growth will be unaffected by 5G given the vanishingly small chance of any adverse impact,” argued RS Access CEO Noah Campbell in May. 

In May, the Dish Smart 5G network launched commercially, offering Dish wireless service in Las Vegas, and has since expanded service to more than 120 cities across the country.

On Tuesday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called his competitors’ attempts to convince the FCC “super shady and unethical,” while Goldman called on the commission to flatly reject their appeal. 

“Over the six years the Commission has let this proceeding fester, satellite operators have been forced to spend countless hours of engineering time responding to frivolous arguments by DISH and RS Access—time that would have been better spent improving services for otherwise unserved Americans and people around the world,” he wrote.

“The Commission must send a strong statement that this behavior will not be tolerated by swiftly shutting down this harmful proceeding.”

A spokesperson for Dish said its engineers are “evaluating SpaceX’s claims in the filing.”

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