ViaSat Asks FCC To Investigate Space X For Space Pollution
from the competitive-elbowing dept
So we’ve already noted how Space X’s Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service isn’t going to revolutionize the broadband industry. The service lacks the capacity to service dense urban or suburban areas, meaning it won’t pose much of a threat to traditional cable and fiber providers. With a $100 monthly price tag and $500 hardware fee, it’s not exactly a miracle cure for the millions of low-income Americans struggling to afford a broadband connection, either.
That said: if you’re currently one of the 42 million Americans who lacks access to any broadband at all, the service, capping out at 100 Mbps, is going to be damn-near miraculous. It’s also going to be a significant upgrade for those currently stuck on last-generation expensive, capped, and sluggish traditional satellite lines.
Enter ViaSat, which clearly isn’t keen on having its captive business market disrupted. The company this week urged the FCC to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX?s low-orbit Starlink constellation, arguing that the fledgling system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth. Since the 80s, satellite systems have had a baked in exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), excluding their businesses from environmental review. But the 12,000 lower orbit satellites Space X intends to launch should change that equation, ViaSat argues:
“given the sheer quantity of satellites at issue here, as well as the unprecedented nature of SpaceX?s treatment of them as effectively expendable, the potential environmental harms associated with SpaceX?s proposed modification are significant,? the company stated.
?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,? Viasat continued.
ViaSat’s motivations here are in part anti-competitive to be sure, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem. A massive rise in lower orbit, cheaper satellites means a lot more junk and orbital debris floating around, putting other space craft at risk. ViaSat also argues this unprecedented rise in spacecraft also means more satellites burning up in orbit, which in turn can create environmental hazards like the production of ozone-destroying chemicals from launch vehicles to chemicals released when satellites burn up in re-entry:
“The petition cites research by The Aerospace Corporation on atmospheric impacts of launches and reentries. At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this month, the organization presented research that concluded that the rise of satellite megaconstellations could increase the mass of satellites reentering the atmosphere from about 100 metric tons a year to as much as 3,200 metric tons.”
Again, ViaSat’s likely playing some competitive games here while also citing serious issues. Issues the FCC hasn’t really paid much attention to as it greenlights not only the launch of Starlink, but Amazon’s massive low-orbit satellite ambitions. This is all before you get to issues of massive light pollution caused by these systems, a problem Musk claimed wouldn’t happen (right before it did), and something scientists recently argued can’t be easily fixed, if it can be fixed at all.
The inquiry was enough to get Elon Musk to comment on Twitter, calling ViaSat’s inquiry “sneaky”:
Starlink ?poses a hazard? to Viasat?s profits, more like it. Stop the sneaky moves, Charlie Ergen!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 29, 2020
It should be noted that Charlie Ergen is CEO of Dish Network, not ViaSat. And while Musk is probably right that ViaSat is largely interested in preventing disruption of its largely-captive market, at the same time we’ve noted how regulators aren’t really taking many of these problems particularly seriously as they stand around in slack-jawed awe at the somewhat innovative potential of emerging low-orbit satellite tech.