The FCC said it will allow SpaceX's Starlink to make changes to its low Earth orbit satellite constellation. The development could make it harder for 5G to expand into the 12GHz band.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

April 27, 2021

4 Min Read
Dish's 5G ambitions for 12GHz face a setback

The FCC approved a request by SpaceX's Starlink to make changes to its constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The ruling represents a setback to Starlink competitors like Viasat and Amazon that had argued against the changes, as well as a knock against Dish Network.

For its part, Dish has been vehemently urging the FCC to reject the requests by SpaceX to modify its satellite operations. Dish's ultimate goal is to get the agency to allow 5G operations in the 12GHz band – the same band that SpaceX is in part using for its expanding LEO satellite Internet services.

"Dish reiterates its request that any grant of SpaceX's ... modification should exclude the 12GHz band," Dish wrote to the FCC just last week.

But the FCC announced Tuesday it plans to take the opposite approach.

"We grant subject to the conditions set forth herein the application of Space Exploration Holdings, LLC (SpaceX) for modification of its license for a non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) fixed-satellite service (FSS) constellation," the agency wrote in a new order. SpaceX requested a number of changes to its LEO satellites, including lowering their altitude from around 680 miles above Earth's surface to around 335 miles. The agency said SpaceX can continue to use the 12GHz band for its operations.

However, the agency didn't shut the door to eventually allowing 5G operations into that same band.

"We recently released the 12GHz NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking], which assesses the potential for terrestrial 5G use of the band," the FCC wrote. "We decline to prejudge any aspects of the 12GHz rulemaking proceeding by either commenting on the ability of terrestrial and satellite operators to share spectrum in the frequency band more generally, or by denying the requested modification that would include authorization to use the 12.2-12.7GHz band."

Indeed, the FCC said that SpaceX can proceed with its changes, but that it needs to be aware that 5G might also be allowed into the 12GHz band at some point in the future – and that it should plan accordingly. "SpaceX proceeds at its own risk," the agency wrote.

"SpaceX’s 12GHz authorization and its satellite modification are both contingent on the outcome of the FCC’s pending 12GHz rulemaking," noted Noah Campbell, CEO of RS Access, another company that holds 12GHz licenses and hopes the FCC will allow 5G operations in the band. "RS Access appreciates the commission’s focus on a potential 'win-win' solution and looks forward to participating in the ongoing notice and comment process."

Dish, for its part, owns substantial 12GHz spectrum holdings, and has suggested that the spectrum could eventually be added to its planned 5G network if the FCC were to allow 5G operations in the band. Such a ruling would give Dish a dramatic advantage in the 5G market since the speed and capability of a wireless network is directly related to the amount of spectrum it uses.

Thus, Dish and others have been petitioning the FCC to consider allowing 5G operations in the 12GHz band, which has so far been reserved for satellite communications. The agency did agree to probe the topic, but it has not yet arrived at any decision.

Dish, of course, continues to work to leverage any advantage it can get against its rivals. For example, it has recently engaged in a policy campaign against T-Mobile in order to prevent that carrier from shutting off the CDMA 3G network Dish is using for its Boost Mobile offering. This week, Dish expanded that campaign into California by urging the telecom regulatory agency in that state to force T-Mobile to maintain its CDMA network until July 1, 2023 instead of shutting it down at the beginning of next year.

"Given the commission's strong commitment to ensuring that customers have access to vital communications services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the California State of Emergency, we do not believe that the commission meant to authorize T-Mobile to arbitrarily shut off CDMA service altogether by the end of 2021," Dish wrote to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The CPUC played a pivotal role in approving T-Mobile's acquisition of Sprint, and Dish argued that T-Mobile promised the agency it would not shut down its CDMA network next year.

T-Mobile officials did not immediately respond to questions about Dish's latest filing, though T-Mobile has argued against Dish at the federal level on the topic.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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