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SpaceX: 5G expansion could kill US Starlink broadband

It would be easier to take this complaint seriously if Elon wasn't so Elon

If the proposed addition of the 12GHz spectrum to 5G goes forward, Starlink broadband terminals across America could be crippled, or so SpaceX has complained. 

The Elon Musk biz made the claim [PDF] this week in a filing to the FCC, which is considering allowing Dish to operate a 5G service in the 12GHz band (12.2-12.7GHz). This frequency range is also used by Starlink and others to provide over-the-air satellite internet connectivity.

SpaceX said its own in-house study, conducted in Las Vegas, showed "harmful interference from terrestrial mobile service to SpaceX's Starlink terminals … more than 77 percent of the time, resulting in full outages 74 percent of the time." It also claimed the interference will extend to a minimum of 13 miles from base stations. In other words, if Dish gets to use these frequencies in the US, it'll render nearby Starlink terminals useless through wireless interference, it was claimed.

The rocket maker criticized a 2021 study that was submitted in favor of Dish to the regulator by RS Access, a group focused on bringing the 12GHz spectrum to 5G in the US. RS Access worked closely with Dish Networks, which is trying to expand into 5G service using the 12GHz band. 

"The key technical question before the [Federal Communications Commission] is whether 5G operations can coexist with non-geostationary satellite orbit Fixed-Satellite Service (NGSO FSS) and Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) licensees in the band," RS Access concluded [PDF] in its report to the FCC.

By that, it means Starlink is the NGSO FSS; and Dish, which offers satellite TV, cellular plans, and more, is the DBS. RS Access's argument is that these two should be able to work alongside each other.

"The commission does not face a binary choice to either do nothing or sacrifice DBS and NGSO services in the 12GHz band," RS Access wrote. SpaceX's filing has no immediate effect on the proposals, and a debate over the rollout is ongoing. 

Starlink also noted RS Access's report found that "only tens of thousands of Americans, which RS Access deems as negligible," would be affected by Dish's 12GHz expansion. "Yet, as the vast majority of comments about this submission have noted, the analysis is riddled with errors and faulty assumptions," it added.

The 5G for 12GHz Coalition, which includes Dish, RS Access, VMWare, and others, and is working with the FCC to see the proposals through, noted in a statement that "after 18 months and both a robust comment and reply period," SpaceX has finally submitted its response to the plans. 

"Our engineers and technical experts are reviewing the filing in depth and remain committed to working in good faith with the FCC and stakeholders to ensure that the American public is able to reap the immense benefits of 5G services in this band," the coalition said. 

Interestingly enough, in April 2021, the FCC approved a request by SpaceX to modify its license for operating Starlink satellites, a change that could potentially cause interference in the 12GHz range. Dish and RS Access both objected to the decision, which they said would compromise their 5G plans for the spectrum.

In that ruling, the FCC said it wasn't going to hold up the licensing decision because of the 12GHz proceedings, and added a caveat: "We condition this grant, subject to any modification necessary to bring it into conformance with future actions in commission rulemakings, including but not limited to the 12GHz proceeding … Therefore, SpaceX proceeds at its own risk."

Starlink has a goal of providing internet to underserved locations, and by many accounts has done so. At the same time, thousands of Starlink satellites orbiting Earth are congesting the night sky so badly that AI models have been developed to help separate stars from Starlink kit blocking the view. ®

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