SpaceX and Dish’s Super-Shady War for the World

Billionaires, satellite links, political chicanery: a present-day, oligopolistic game of jockeying for prime placement in the 12 GHz spectrum has at least a few of the ingredients of a thriller. Or—given the outsized personalities involved (including Elon Musk and Michael Dell) and the epic, five-year duration of the dispute to date—maybe more like a space opera.

At issue is a set of frequencies where Musk’s SpaceX sets its Starlink internet service, the company’s well-publicized play for broadband beaming down from low-Earth orbit to satellite dishes in remote areas. Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network Corporation, which transmits TV on these frequencies and is one of the two big satellite viewing providers in the United States, has launched a 5G wireless service and wants to increase its signal volume in this wavelength. Musk’s side says the move would make debilitating static for his satellites; Ergen’s engineers say that’s nonsense. As for Dell (you may recall Dell laptops) his private investment firm holds interest in some of the airwaves in play. At the moment, they’re siding with Dish.

The current field, more precisely 12.2 GHz to 12.7 GHz in the Ku microwave band, is a lot of bandwidth lightly used—primarily today for assorted satellite broadcasts, live feeds, ISS tracking, and military recon drones. But the corporates fighting over it recently cranked up their clashing. The sides are lobbying a shorthanded Federal Communications Commission, with recent highlight swipes including Musk blasting his foes as “super shady and unethical” while taking return fire from Dish for “flimsy” and “far-fetched” objections to opening bandwidth.

But what’s it mean for those outside the immediate fray? For civilians going about their daily business? For people—possible satellite service subscribers, all—around the world?

Only a handful of people who understand the nature of possible interference and related issues seem to be paying attention now. “Rights to use frequencies have not been sharply defined, and the overlapping permits generate controversy,” says Thomas Hazlett, a Clemson University economist who writes about bandwidth battles (and once served as FCC chief economist). But the rulings—and market activities that result—stand to have real social impact wherever signals from satellite broadcasts or satellite internet connections may one day fall. Which means pretty much everywhere.

It’s a stark contrast given the economic value placed on frequency rights. More than 100 bandwidth auctions over the last 30 years have netted about $280 billion for the US Treasury. And as with television, radio, and the railway before that, citizens aren’t likely to tune in until more tangible developments happen. But others are paying attention, and the pressures are intense. “In the US it is purely market-driven,” says Shahed Mazumder, global director of telecom solutions at Aerospike, a database firm. SpaceX has launched thousands of new satellites; Dish is trying to move into new services. Neither want interference.

“The political pressure, the business pressure, the monetary pressure: there are legitimately major things going on here,” Dano says. Billions of dollars of value, potentially, to be created or destroyed depending on how an FCC engineer finally decides on it.” Meanwhile the politically-appointed commissioners at the FCC are down one member, splitting it 2-2 along party lines. It makes controversial calls more difficult.

More techie influences may also affect the spectrum spat. In 2018 the US became the first to approve a spectrum-sharing setup in the CBRS band. It’s an advanced concept allowing different sets of users to share spectrum—making more room. Dano says the FCC is under pressure to allocate 12 GHz in a way set up for spectrum-sharing.

This notably did not happen with US 5G network rollouts, which turned into a snarling issue earlier this year over fears of interference in the C-band between high-speed cellular service towers and plane altimeters in low-visibility conditions on approach to airports.

Meanwhile Starlink wants to open its satellite show in further-flung places, seeking to open gateways in the UK. While its 12 GHz fight with Dish is centered in the US and Dish’s US services, satellite spectrum allocation is…special. Space has international dimensions, points out Plum Consulting’s Selçuk Kırtay, who was writing about spectrum sharing in 2002. Slicing up the Ku band has history—it even left its mark at a global astronautical confab in then-Czechoslovakia in Star Wars-era 1977.

Ofcom, the UK regulator, is monitoring developments with US allocations in 12 GHz. The German network authority is preparing to discuss the 12.2 GHz-to-12.7 GHz frequency range at next year’s ITU World Radiocommunication Conference in the UAE.

Stay tuned, say experts and satellite industry watchers. “How the conflicts are resolved in the USA will materially affect markets around the world,” Hazlett says.