A battle over satellite internet that has been brewing between tech titans Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX and Starlink, and Charlie Ergen, co-founder of EchoStar and Dish Network, has broken out into the open. EchoStar is a worldwide provider of satellite communication and internet services through its Hughes Network Systems and EchoStar Satellite Services.
In a December 22, 2020 filing, satellite internet provider Viasat formally requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) either conduct an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s Starlink system or else require an environmental impact statement from the company before approving SpaceX's request to add almost 3,000 more internet-beaming satellites to low-Earth orbit.
Satellite systems have a "categorical exemption" from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was implemented by the FCC in the mid-1980s based on an analysis at that time which showed that launches of individual satellites have no measurable effect on the environment. However, the law includes a provision that "an interested person" can request that a federal agency conduct an environmental assessment.
In its filing, Viasat wrote: “Relying on the Commission’s decades-old categorical exemption to avoid even inquiring into the environmental consequences of SpaceX’s modification proposal would not only violate NEPA, but also would needlessly jeopardize the environmental, aesthetic, health, safety, and economic interests that it seeks to protect, and harm the public interest.” (Emphasis by Viasat.)
Viasat's argument raises the issues of ozone-destroying chemicals being produced by launch vehicles, and of chemicals and debris being released when satellites re-enter the atmosphere. An environmental assessment would put a stop to SpaceX's roughly biweekly launches of Starlink satellites, and an environmental impact statement might take Starlink years to complete.
In the filing, Viasat claimed that Starlink has "little regard for the harmful environmental impacts they [its satellites] may have" and that Starlink poses "an unreasonable threat" to the space environment. Viasat's lawyers contended that the "thousands of satellites [Starlink] is seeking to pack into a lower orbit will increase the risks of collisions and produce excessive space debris."
In the filing, Viasat also raised the issue of light pollution in the night sky, something that Starlink is already addressing with the inclusion of visors on its satellites to prevent the reflection of sunlight.
How is Charlie Ergen involved?
According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ergen is not an owner of Viasat, and a Viasat spokesperson recently told Business Insider that Ergen "is not involved in Viasat's FCC filings." However, since 2012, Viasat's data services have been bundled along with the satellite-TV services of Dish Network.
In response to Viasat's filing, Elon Musk fired off a tweet saying, "Starlink 'poses a hazard' to Viasat's profits, more like it. Stop the sneaky moves, Charlie Ergen!" Also, Musk wasn't buying Ergen's supposed detachment from Viasat and its executive chairman Mark Dankberg, tweeting, "This action is wack, not dank!!"
Starlink “poses a hazard” to Viasat’s profits, more like it. Stop the sneaky moves, Charlie Ergen!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 29, 2020
To muddy the waters even further, on January 12, 2021, the FCC voted to explore the possibility of companies delivering their ground-based 5G wireless services over the same 12 GHz band that SpaceX is using for its satellite broadband. Dish has urged the FCC to allocate that spectrum for 5G, and Dish is currently creating a 5G wireless service that will compete with AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.
SpaceX is forcefully fighting this proposal. In a December 28, 2020 notice to the FCC, SpaceX claimed that sharing 12 GHz would, "harm existing satellite broadband and satellite television users." Musk himself joined in the conference calls between SpaceX's lawyers and FCC commissioners.
Ergen has some powerful friends
RS Access, a company backed by Dell Computer Company founder Michael Dell, also owns spectrum licenses within that same 12 GHz band, and they too want that spectrum to be used for 5G. Having 5G services within the same band might interfere with Starlink's signals.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has his own plans to deliver high-speed broadband to customers over satellite internet with his Project Kuiper. In July 2020, the FCC approved Amazon's plans to deploy 3,236 satellites, however, the company has yet to launch a single satellite. Amazon is arguing to the FCC that the low-earth orbits of Starlink satellites would create a risk of collisions with its own yet-to-be-launched satellites.
What the future holds
With former president Trump's appointee Ajit Pai having just left the chairmanship of the FCC, that agency may soon be on an entirely different footing. Either way, the stakes couldn't be higher for those living in rural areas who find it difficult to access broadband internet. Whether the future internet in these areas will be coming from satellites, such as Musk's Starlink or Bezos's Project Kuiper, or from 5G wireless is what this fight is all about.