Elon Musk vs. Charlie Ergen: Battle of the Billionaires Over Spectrum

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The two moguls want the rules to favor their approach to high-speed broadband service. Is there enough room for both of them?

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In a later filing with the FCC, Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., then known as SpaceX, told the regulator that it needed airwaves that sit above 12 GHz on the wireless spectrum, which could be used for satellites. The beams of the Starlink swarm are free and clear. High-speed broadband Internet service to disconnected homes nationwide. SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

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Tesla billionaire’s main rival in this matter is Dish Network Corporation

Chairman Charlie Ergen, another mogul with a history of engaging with regulators. Mr. Argens Dish and his allies—including Dell Computer founder Michael Dell—are pressuring the government through their personal investment fund, MSD Capital, to allow cellphone towers to send high-speed Internet signals over the same airwaves. . SpaceX and fellow satellite operator OneWeb oppose changes that they say threaten their goal of expanding Internet access from the skies.

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Mr Ergon made his fortune launching satellites but said his company’s future lies in fifth-generation wireless service on the ground. Mr. Musk’s business, which includes electric cars and rocket launches that take NASA astronauts to space, also includes satellite broadband service.

It’s the kind of skirmish that companies often wage in Washington for limited resources subject to government regulations—but with more prominent personalities and a sharper edge than most telecommuting controversies. The battle over wireless spectrum is becoming increasingly common as technological advances like 5G allow companies to stream data in ways thought impossible just a few years ago, creating new demands for space on the airwaves to carry those signals. .

SpaceX says its new Starlink broadband service is already providing cable-like internet speeds to more than 90,000 customers. The FCC provided $885 million in incentives to the company to provide more connections in areas of the US that lack real broadband. Dish and its partners argue that the looser rules for the 12 GHz frequency will help the company build a network that will connect smartphones, factory machines and vehicle sensors with the kind of ultrafast internet speeds that 5G promises to deliver.

Roots of Controversy

The controversy has developed over the years. Dish and its rival DirecTV have long had the first rights to use 12 GHz of spectrum to support TV broadcasts broadcast by satellites in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth. But most of the spectrum remains untapped. Dish and DirecTV send many signals on frequencies out of band in contention, and their subscriber bases continue to shrink as viewers cut the pay-TV cord and adopt online streaming services.

Meanwhile, Starlink engineers have spent the past six years working on a plan to make satellite Internet speeds competitive with traditional broadband cable companies. The company has already used low-cost rocket launches to throw hundreds of satellites into orbit just 340 miles above Earth, cutting the time it takes for broadband signals to travel between satellites and customers’ dishes. .

The FCC granted Starlink’s low-flying satellites “secondary” permission to use 12 GHz airwaves, meaning they cannot interfere with the transmissions of Dish and DirecTV’s older geostationary satellites. Both sides point their transmissions in different directions, so dual use was not considered a problem.

The controversy grew over Dish’s ambitions to expand its 5G network, which is under construction. The company now seeks the right to send cellular signals over the same 12 GHz airwaves it uses for satellite transmissions, taking steps to prevent one type of signal from interfering with another.

no end in sight

A quick resolution to the Musk-Ergon standoff is unlikely. Mr. Pai’s FCC ended up drafting what most observers consider a “neutral” document down the road. The agency, now led by executive chairman Jessica Rosenworcel, is still missing a full slate of commissioners, hindering its ability to tackle controversial policy issues.

Both sides have claimed that the other misrepresents the science behind their services. “There’s definitely a lot of hostility in a lot of the filings,” says Tim Farrar, president of TMF Associates, a telecoms consulting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. SpaceX has been particularly aggressive in defending its turf against potential interlopers, Mr. Farrar says.

In a March filing with the FCC, SpaceX accused Dish of making “increasingly desperate claims to support its quest to add even more frequencies to its warehouse of unused spectrum”, saying Mr. The company would be better off building the network it promised “rather than spending its time trying to get service from customers who are actually delivering on promises.”

Dish told regulators that SpaceX was seeking to monopolize a resource it doesn’t need. The company argued that the 12-GHz band is just a tiny fraction of the many wavelengths that Mr Musk’s satellites can use to beam data to customers. Dish wrote in a letter to the commission, “SpaceX continues an exercise that has become familiar: do not leave any ground except inch by inch.”

Dish’s public-policy chief Jeffrey Blum says SpaceX’s pushback against potential ground-based users of SpaceX is unnecessary in light of recent technological advances that would allow satellites and cellular towers to share the same frequencies.

“We don’t want to fight with them,” he says. “We don’t have to fight.”

But Starlink has said in multiple filings that sharing of spectrum will not work. Indeed, Mr. Musk has argued that new companies using 12 GHz signals will destroy the business model his company has built over the course of several years of planning.

“Starlink itself is good,” Musk said at Vox Media’s Code 2021 conference. “It’s a very good complement, and an essential complement to 5G and fiber, and will provide a revenue stream to develop our next generation of rockets.”

Mr. Fitzgerald is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Washington, DC, and can be contacted at [email protected]

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