Dish, Space X Battle At The Broadband Subsidy Trough
from the good-arguments,-dodgy-motivation dept
To be clear: Space X’s Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service won’t 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 (if you can afford it). It’s also going to be a major competitive challenge to the companies that not only compete for rural broadband attention (like WISPs, cellular providers, and last-gen satellite providers), but are busy elbowing out one another at the trough to grab a slice of taxpayer subsidies. Understandably, many of these companies are trying to slow Starlink by any means necessary.
Last month, ViaSat urged the FCC to investigate Space X’s very real impact on scientific research via light pollution (a genuine problem regulators have done bupkis about so far). Since the 80s, satellite systems have had a baked in exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), excluding their businesses from environmental review. As Amazon and Space X fling tens of thousands of low orbit satellites into space, ViaSat is suggesting that exemption be reversed. ViaSat’s motivations here are entirely selfish. But at the same time this is a real problem they’re not wrong about.
Dish Network is also trying to slow down Starlink a bit more creatively by telling the FCC the company’s broadband plans could cause interference in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band:
“Dish told the FCC that SpaceX’s plan “would adversely affect reception at DBS consumer dishes and that the system as modified would exceed the applicable power limits under International Telecommunication Union and Commission rules. In other words, SpaceX would not be able [to] use the 12 GHz band to meet its RDOF obligations if such service interferes with DBS operations.”
Earlier this year we noted how Space X was awarded $885.51 million over 10 years from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. The problem: like many companies, critics say Space X gamed the system by being misleading about where the company plans to offer service. As such, it’s not really clear that we need to be throwing nearly a billion dollars at one of the planet’s richest human beings to deploy service to an extra 642,925 locations they probably would have serviced anyway without taxpayer/ratepayer aid.
As the FCC begins digging more deeply into who actually deserves subsidization under its heavily criticized RDOF auction, Dish is trying to have Starlink’s designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act pulled, threatening its subsidies. Starlink’s response to Dish’s claims is to correctly note that Dish is largely motivated by its own best interests:
“Clearly, this challenge is part of DISH?s larger campaign to cash in on its spectrum speculation in the 12 GHz band by antagonizing non-geostationary orbit satellite operators already licensed to operate in that spectrum. The Commission should decisively reject across all of those proceedings these blatant efforts to misuse Commission resources.”
You might recall that Dish is supposed to be building a new 5G network as part of a dodgy plan by the Trump administration affixed to the Sprint T-Mobile merger. The plan: to build a new network over 7 years to help counter the lost competition from losing Sprint. The reality: many still tend to think Dish will spend several years stringing regulators along, only to then cash out of their massive spectrum holdings sometime down the road, with no real network to show for it. So far, the latter path seems like the most likely outcome, in part because T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon really don’t want the added competition.
So on one hand, you have a company in Starlink offering a promising technology, but gaming the broken FCC subsidy system to obtain ratepayer money they don’t really deserve. On the other, you have a company in Dish that may or may not ever develop a major working commercial wireless network, eager to derail Starlink just in case it someday has to compete with it. Layer on top the fact that countless billions in subsidies never seem to fix US broadband woes because we generally do a terrible job mapping broadband coverage or tracking how those subsidies are spent, and you can start to see why US broadband (and policy) is a bit of a dysfunctional mess.