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Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk weighed in on the debate around spectrum for 5G. But his position is likely linked to his view as chief executive for both Tesla and SpaceX.

Mike Dano

February 4, 2020

4 Min Read
Elon Musk: Carriers 'Greedy' in Quest for 5G Spectrum

Elon Musk -- the seemingly omnipresent entrepreneur billionaire leading corporate behemoths including SpaceX and Tesla -- wrote on Twitter that 5G is "medically safe."

But Musk also had some caustic words for wireless network operators that are calling for more spectrum for 5G. "5g is getting a bit too greedy with their spectrum land grab," he wrote in response to a question from a Twitter user about whether 5G poses health concerns.

Although Musk didn't elaborate -- and Twitter discourse often doesn't delve into context or analysis -- the comments from one of the world's richest and most powerful people on the topic of 5G are noteworthy. They also likely reflect several important issues facing both Musk and the broader telecommunications industry.

First, on the topic of health and safety, the FCC last year issued a blunt declaration that 5G does not pose a health risk. The agency added that it will not change its existing RF exposure limits. That announcement likely was geared as a response to growing worries in cities and towns around the US and the world that 5G -- particularly in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum bands -- might somehow be unsafe.

But it is Musk's nod toward the ongoing debate around spectrum for 5G that's perhaps more interesting. Many in the US wireless industry and the Trump administration have rallied around the notion of a "race to 5G" between the US and China, and that spectrum for 5G sits at the centerpiece of that argument. Chinese regulators, so the argument goes, have allocated vast swathes of unused midband spectrum for 5G, and the fact that US officials haven't yet done so could affect the broader development of 5G technology in the US. That, 5G proponents warn, could push entrepreneurs and innovators away from the US and toward China, thus potentially tipping the balance of the entire world's economy away from the West and toward the East.

Others have argued that the "race to 5G" is mostly a fabricated issue primarily designed to free up inexpensive spectrum resources for US wireless network operators more quickly. Based on Musk's comments, he may be leaning toward this camp.

From Tesla to SpaceX
But Musk's view of the situation is undoubtedly colored by his work with his companies like Tesla (which is making autonomous and electric-powered cars) and SpaceX (which is making, among other things, spaceships and satellites that can beam Internet services to the ground). Both companies are tangential to the telecom industry.

Tesla cars, for example, do contain wireless connections. Indeed, the company inked a connectivity deal with AT&T roughly five years ago to power the streaming music and infotainment services currently available in Teslas on the road today. But so far Tesla and Musk have remained silent on the topic of 5G connections, which is noteworthy given that 5G is often bandied as a critical component of autonomous vehicles of the future.

Further, the FCC recently issued new rules around the 5.9GHz band, which had been allocated for car-to-car communications using the DSRC protocol. Now, though, the FCC is looking to switch that to the C-V2X protocol, a technology that stems from the 4G and 5G industry.

But SpaceX is where Musk may be butting up directly with the debate around spectrum for 5G. The company is currently embroiled in a battle about whether the FCC should allow mobile 5G operations in the 12GHz band.

Specifically, companies like RS Access and the Dish Network-backed MVDDS 5G Coalition currently hold 12GHz spectrum licenses. They are asking the FCC to issue new rules for the 12GHz band that would allow them to build 5G networks in the spectrum.

On the other side of the argument sit companies like SpaceX and OneWeb. They're among a number of companies working to deploy tiny, low-Earth orbiting satellites to offer high-speed Internet services to people on the ground. Those operations could make use of the 12GHz band. But they contend that 5G operations in the 12GHz band would interfere with their own operations in the 12GHz band.

"It appears that the current plans for conversion of MVDDS [12GHz] spectrum to mobile use will have an enormous detrimental effect on SpaceX's ability to serve American consumers," SpaceX wrote in a recent FCC filing.

A similar debate is playing out across other spectrum bands as well. Verizon, T-Mobile and others are calling on the FCC to release spectrum bands ranging from the C-Band to the 6GHz band for 5G. The FCC will ultimately make the decision about how this will all play out in the US.

Thus, Musk's comments that 5G proponents are "getting a bit too greedy with their spectrum land grab" appear at least informed.

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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