Starlink internet could become unusable for many Americans. Here's why

A service issue could mean service outages for 74% of the time.
Chris Young
A Starlink satellite dish.SpaceX/Twitter

SpaceX has warned that its Starlink internet service faces an existential threat.

The company announced on Tuesday, June 21, that its Starlink network would become "unusable for most Americans" if a proposal by Dish Network to use the 12 GHz band for terrestrial 5G is approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

SpaceX made its announcement in a strongly-worded letter to the FCC. The claims are part of a fierce ongoing feud with Dish Network.

SpaceX: A new 5G network proposal could cause 'harmful interference' to Starlink users

In its letter to the FCC, SpaceX highlighted the fact that U.S.-based satellite broadcaster Dish Network is seeking permission to operate a high-power 5G mobile service in the 12 GHz band.

The issue, according to SpaceX, stems from the fact that this is part of the same Ku-band spectrum used by Starlink, OneWeb, and other satellite operators to connect to user terminals.

The private space company said it has conducted tests in Las Vegas showing that Dish Network's proposal would cause Starlink users to "experience harmful interference" more than 77 percent of the time. 

In a separate press statement, SpaceX explained that, "despite technical studies dating back as far as 2016 that refute the basis of their claims, DISH has attempted to mislead the FCC with faulty analysis in hopes of obscuring the truth."

"If DISH’s lobbying efforts succeed," it continued, "our study shows that Starlink customers will experience harmful interference more than 77% of the time and total outage of service 74% of the time, rendering Starlink unusable for most Americans."

That is a big if of course, but DISH's 5G network currently serves roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population, and much like SpaceX, the company is making efforts to expand its coverage. Dish Network has also filed its own FCC complaints against SpaceX in the past, and it recently demanded the company deactivate customers using Starlink on the move.

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SpaceX claims the FCC has received misleading analyses

SpaceX claims its recent Vegas study only serves to highlight an issue that should be obvious to the FCC and Dish Network. David Goldman, SpaceX senior director of satellite policy, wrote in the FCC complaint, "this analysis verifies what should be intuitive — that a high-power terrestrial network would blow out anyone using the high-sensitivity equipment satellite consumers must use to receive signals that comply with Commission and international power restrictions on satellite downlink transmissions."

"As a result, vastly fewer Americans could be connected using next-generation satellite services, and those that remain would experience degraded service and regular network outages."

Goldman also criticized a number of interference analyses conducted by companies looking to build 5G networks. One study, Goldman explained, was completely "untethered from reality", as it failed to address important factors such as the way satellite operators share their spectrum via coordination arrangements — one was recently agreed by SpaceX and OneWeb, for example.

Ultimately, SpaceX is calling on the FCC to reject Dish Network's 12 GHz 5G network proposal. The companys said it would impede its work to provide high-speed internet to the most underserved Americans. Others might argue that all that astronomical obstruction can't be for nothing. 

SpaceX also urged the government agency to investigate whether technical studies submitted to the regulator by DISH and other organizations were intentionally misleading.

SpaceX could own two-thirds of all active satellites within 18 months  

Astronomers face their own kind of existential threat due to Starlink and other similar satellite mega-constellations, including one in the works by Amazon called Project Kuiper. A recent study by scientists at the University of Regina stated that "without drastic reduction of the reflectivities, or significantly fewer total satellites in orbit, satcons will greatly change the night sky worldwide." 

SpaceX's internet satellite service currently doesn't serve a great deal of U.S. cities and it is mainly available in rural areas. However, the company is set to vastly expand availability in 2023, according to a map on its website.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently stated that SpaceX is expecting "over 4,200 Starlink satellites in operation within 18 months", which would constitute two-thirds of all active satellites. And, barring FCC approval of Dish Network's 5G proposal, it will likely only continue to grow from there.

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