SpaceX wants Dish’s 2GHz spectrum for Starlink mobile service

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There is a crash of frequency brewing in space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow it to operate a new mobile service in the 2 GHz frequency band. The problem: This group is currently licensed to Dish, and the two companies are already at each other’s throats. In what could signal escalating tensions, SpaceX accuses Dish of not using the spectrum and therefore obstructing increased connectivity for consumers.

SpaceX is just the latest entity to call out Dish for how it uses spectrum licensing. The satellite TV operator has held the wireless spectrum for years, but it has never progressed beyond small-scale testing. Just a few years ago, T-Mobile urged the FCC to revoke Dish’s licenses on the grounds that it was hoarding spectrum instead of developing it. However, Dish reclaimed some of the divested spectrum when T-Mobile acquired Sprint, further increasing its holdings.

The company’s latest Project Genesis 5G test has very limited coverage, and Dish is already at odds with SpaceX over its proposed expansion into the 12 GHz band for 5G. Now it’s also getting into a battle over the 2 GHz band.

SpaceX wants to use this frequency to offer mobile satellite services (MSS), which would allow a smartphone, tablet or other portable devices to connect to the Starlink network. SpaceX tells the FCC that Starlink MSS could deliver high speeds and latency of just 50ms, which is “almost imperceptible to consumers”. This service would be separate from the microwave signals (Ka and Ku bands) used for Starlink terminal service, which operates in the tens of gigahertz ranges.

SpaceX says it can add mobile connectivity to the satellites it already plans to launch.

Dish currently has a pair of satellites equipped for MSS, but SpaceX says Dish has no plans to expand the service. The satellites are over ten years old and the license expires in two years. Dish has not announced plans to deploy new satellites, which would be needed to provide MSS support to consumers. Meanwhile, SpaceX says it can add MSS modules to satellites for which it has already gained approval. And there’s no doubt it would launch them — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is an inexpensive and reliable way to deploy up to 60 Starlink nodes in a single launch. SpaceX already has more than 2,000 satellites in orbit, making it the largest satellite operator in the world.

Even if the FCC accepts SpaceX’s arguments, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to talk to satellites on your phone tomorrow. The 2 GHz block of frequencies (band 70) is currently only supported on a few Motorola phones. It will take time for more devices to launch with access to these wavelengths. SpaceX could also deploy new terminals supporting the lower frequency.

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