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SpaceX Petitions for 2 GHz, 1.6/2.4 GHz Spectrum Access Could Face Hurdles

SpaceX likely faces a tough challenge as it seeks easier access to the 2 GHz and 1.6/2.4 GHz spectrum bands, spectrum experts tell us. In a pair of FCC petitions last week, the company argued that in both cases the spectrum is underused and urged changes in the licensing and sharing frameworks to allow new entrants and coexistence.

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"That is going to be an uphill battle" for SpaceX, Recon Analytics' Roger Entner told us. Traditionally, exclusive access to spectrum has been treated "as close to ownership as you can get without owning it," he said, pointing to the incentive auction and broadcasters netting sizable amounts for spectrum for which they never paid. Entner said if the FCC approves the petitions, the agency almost surely will face a legal challenge.

Both petitions used similar language justifying the changes, citing growing demand for ubiquitous mobile connectivity and IoT applications.

The petitions are about getting greater access to mobile satellite service (MSS) spectrum for supplemental coverage from space (SCS) services, said spectrum and space consultant Tim Farrar, saying use of terrestrial spectrum for SCS carries a variety of challenges, such as international border issues and exclusion zones. Having more MSS spectrum accessible also would give the satellite operator more leverage in SCS talks with terrestrial carriers, he said.

More MSS spectrum also could come into play as SpaceX's Starlink increasingly competes with terrestrial broadband providers, Farrar said. He said Starlink already accounts for the majority of satellite data traffic and will soon run out of growth opportunities among satellite data subscribers. After that, it will seek terrestrial providers' subscribers, he said. Some terrestrial telcos and cable might get involved in opposing the petitions, though T-Mobile -- which is partnering with SpaceX on SCS service -- won't, he said. Farrar added the FCC isn't likely to be enthusiastic about what would be a significant redrawing of the satellite bands chart.

SpaceX also could find a cool reception at the FCC due to the agency in its SCS framework order opening up several bands to SCS service (see 2402220059), a lawyer with satellite experience told us. FCC commissioners will vote on the SCS framework at their March open meeting.

EchoStar, sole licensee in the 2 GHz band, and Globalstar, sole licensee in the 1.6/2.4 GHz band, are expected to strongly oppose the petitions. Farrar said the 2 GHz petition comes as EchoStar is trying to resolve financial challenges and refinance debt using spectrum assets following its Dish Network acquisition. The petition "is not going to help," he said, noting it could create more uncertainty in investors' minds.

The 2 GHz petition "is anti-competitive, riddled with factual untruths and contravenes the Commission’s long-settled and well-considered rules governing the 2 GHz band," Jeff Blum, EchoStar executive vice president-external and government affairs, said in an email. "The FCC must reject it out of hand. EchoStar has deployed the 2 GHz band to over 240 million Americans" as part of its stand-alone open radio access network and "has two 2 GHz satellites over North America, which we are extensively testing for next-generation services" including SCS. "Permitting Starlink to loot the 2 GHz band like a pirate would harm the Commission’s goal of injecting needed competition into the wireless and satellite markets, all to the detriment of U.S. consumers," Blum said. "It is preposterous that Starlink has received over 15,000 MHz of spectrum for free and now wants to steal spectrum in which EchoStar has invested billions and which is actively serving U.S. consumers."

In its 2 GHz petition, SpaceX said the FCC should confirm that authorizations for Dish subsidiaries Gamma and DBSD are no longer in force, since the U.S. market access grant for DBSD's satellite expired last year and Gamma's authorization ends in a few months. "By disposing of the encumbrance of systems that never provided 2 GHz MSS service in the United States, the Commission would free up this spectrum for innovative approaches designed to optimize productive use of this valuable spectrum," it said.

The 1.6/2.4 GHz band was designed for sharing, yet Globalstar relies on a small fraction of the available spectrum, SpaceX said in the 1.6/2.4 GHz petition. SpaceX's petition asks the agency to take the three pending applications for MSS systems in the 1610-1617.775 MHz and 2483.5-2500 MHz band -- it, Globalstar and Kepler -- into a single processing round, and establish a means of opening the band to new entrants through subsequent processing rounds. It also urges the agency to lay out minimum capabilities for a 1.6/2.4 GHz MSS system when it comes to issues such as speed, latency and spectral efficiency, establishing a baseline for all applicants. SpaceX also asked for a modernization of the agency's intra-round spectrum sharing rules for operational systems in the band in the absence of a coordination agreement.

Such an updated sharing framework "can encourage more productive and efficient use of underutilized frequencies in the 1.6/2.4 GHz Band and finally realize a robust, competitive satellite ecosystem that can meet the mobile connectivity demands of American consumers and industry," SpaceX said.

The proposals "would be significant changes to the essentially exclusive licensing frameworks that have governed the S-band and 1.6/2.4 GHz band for over a decade," emailed spectrum lawyer Ryan Thompson at Hogan Lovells.

Believing in the "regulatory certainty and stability" of the 1.6/2.4 GHz Big LEO band, Globalstar has "invested substantially and continuously" in its satellite operations there, company officials told FCC Space Bureau staffers, according to a Space Bureau filing last week. It urged bureau approval of its plans to launch replacement satellites in 2025 to replenish and extend the life of its constellation (see 2308030042).

Parts of the petitions mirror each other. Each calls on the agency to "establish a procedure for opening the band to additional new entrants in the future, along with any necessary protection criteria." In addition, they both say the FCC should detail minimum capabilities for a successful MSS system in their respective bands when it comes to such issues as speed, latency and spectral efficiency. Those minimum capabilities would set a baseline for applicants, the petitions said. And both petitions advocate a hold on all pending license applications and filing new or modification applications in the bands. This would preserve the operating landscape as the agency modernizes its sharing framework.