Judge Shoots Down ViaSat's Quest To Stall Starlink Launches

from the star-wars dept

For a few years, scientific researchers have warned that Elon Musk’s Starlink low orbit satellite broadband constellations are harming scientific research. Simply, the light pollution Musk claimed would never happen in the first place is making it far more difficult to study the night sky, a problem researchers say can be mitigated somewhat but not eliminated. Another problem is there are simply so many low orbit satellites being launched, the resulting space junk is creating navigation hazards. US regulators, so far, have done little to nothing about either problem.

Enter ViaSat, which clearly isn’t keen on having its captive business market disrupted by new competition. Back in January, the company 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 sheer scale of what Starlink and Amazon are doing (more than 50,000 low orbit satellites in orbit) 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.”

The thing is, ViaSat is most certainly only really interested in its own revenues here, even if the concerns it’s pushing are legitimate ones. But after petitioning for change saw no reaction at the FCC, ViaSat sued the agency last May, demanding a pause of Starlink satellite broadband deployments. This week, judges made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. Though the court’s order (pdf) did grant a motion to expedite the appeal, which should speed up the legal feud somewhat.

The FCC and Space X have largely been aligned on this issue, insistent that any environmental harms can be mitigated. Space X, meanwhile, quite correctly notes that ViaSat’s environmental concerns are likely performative and its arguments not entirely consistent:

“Viasat’s newfound environmentalism is belied by its actions at every turn. Viasat failed to raise any environmental concerns in connection with any other satellite authorization, including SpaceX’s authorization to operate Starlink satellites at a different altitude and its prior request (nearly identical to the one at issue here) to lower many of those satellites. To the contrary, Viasat?a non-US licensee that has previously sought to escape Commission regulation altogether?ultimately relies on “competitive harm” to support its stay request. But stifling competition and protecting profits is not what NEPA is about.”

But again, ViaSat is correct that the concerns about space junk and light pollution are legitimate ones that aren’t being taken particularly seriously at the FCC. But the solution to that problem likely isn’t going to come at the hands of a company predominately and transparently only looking out for its own best interests.

The FCC under both Trump and Biden has been very eager to give Musk’s Starlink pretty much anything it wants, including some extremely dubious subsidies. All of this favorable treatment and subsidization comes despite the fact Starlink isn’t going to have quite the innovative impact many assume. As noted previously, the service will only have the capacity to reach 400 to 800,000 subscribers in its first few years (a max of 6 million several years from now), a small drop in the bucket when you consider upwards of 42 million Americans lack broadband access, and another 83 million live under a broadband monopoly.

So there are still legitimate questions here about whether Starlink will really be worth the cost(s), and whether Starlink will be able to remain financially viable (the majority of past efforts on this front have not). And while a self-interested competitor like ViaSat may have been the wrong messenger for worries about space junk and light pollution, the concerns themselves likely aren’t going anywhere.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,
Companies: spacex, starlink, viasat

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Judge Shoots Down ViaSat's Quest To Stall Starlink Launches”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
anon says:

dubious subsidies?

Technically, SpaceX’s Starlink should be eligable for subsidies for every location in the continental US, and Hawaii for which no other applicant has applied. For the areas that are rural (defined by some small number of residences per square mile) the subsidies shoud be split 50:50 between SpaceX and the terrestrial ISP.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: dubious subsidies?

While close to a billion dollars is a lot of money to most of us, it probably amounts to less than a tenth of the initial cost of Starlink. Furthermore, it will be delivered over the next decade, while Starlink costs will occur in far less time (indeed, SpaceX has probably already spent two to three times that amount on launches and satellites to date). Every dollar of that is at risk should Starlink fail, so claiming that SpaceX’s RDOF award is "privatizing cost and risk" is almost pure bullshit (well, at least 80%, and more likely 90% BS).

It is also true that early demand for Tesla cars was partly assisted by governments subsidies, but technically they were given to the car buyers. As this allowed Tesla to charge higher prices, it is only a technicality, except that as they were given to buyers, Tesla had no way to avoid benefiting from them. Now the last thing that Tesla needs is more demand – they are expanding as fast as they can and still cannot keep up with global demand. I really wish the Biden plan was to subsidize charging infrastructure, which is desperately needed, rather than electric vehicles that are selling just fine without any subsidies.

Also note that the FCC has woken up to the optics of subsidizing parking lots and already served areas and is moving to stop RDOF grants to such areas.

Finally, if Musk companies were actively lobbying for more subisdies (or had done in the past) you would have a much stronger point. However, the only heavy lobbying I have seen in space related activities recently is some sore loser name Jeff something or other who, with his allies, has been heavily lobbying for congress to force NASA to award a second moon landing contract.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: dubious subsidies?

The fact it’s so easy to get a paltry few hundred million in subsidies when you have $100bil+ might be viewed as a problem by some people.

If the service isn’t profitable, but is desperately needed, maybe the government should build it as a public resource? But then I guess the military might be more likely to get caught in a public record request. Better to keep communication networks in the "private" sector like all those data centers the cell phone companies let the NSA tap into.

It’s also rather convenient that the one single thing he staked all his PayPal cash on was something where it was impossible to not have the government run a $7,500 cash back incentive for the private company. Just a happy little mistake.

Marty says:

Monopolies, greed mongers and Viasat

As a person living well past phone service, cable TV and anything other than satellite ISP I am stuck and furious. 2 companies are available HughesNet or Viasat. Both have so called affordable plans. If speed is desired I pay in cash for miserly data plans. Currently paying 70usd monthly for 12 gb of data which can be blown through in 2 days or less. Then my link is ‘de-prioritized’ to the point of useless. There are times that speeds are throttled (illegal but who cares) to the point of less than 9.6 dialup and other times up to 20mbps. Something I’ve wondered about is a company mostly owned by a Swedish conglomerate servicing US military and the White House seems odd. Final thought for now; this all happening less than 20 minute drive from downtown San Jose, CA, also known as Silicon Valley.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Monopolies, greed mongers and Viasat

I’ve had both companies in the past.
Both were slower than DSL.
Granted it was 15 years ago.

But here’s my VS experience:
Month one. Blew past cap in 3 weeks. Slow speed
Month 2. Blew past cap in 2 weeks. Called to cancel service.
Month 3. Charged for service that wasn’t cancelled after all. Plus’s massive equipment fee.
Reversed charge with the bank.
Get a call a few days later telling me how bad and rude I was to reverses charge (for a service I cancelled!). How a small business can’t survive if people cancel service and reverse charge.

They first said I didn’t cancel
Then said I did but had to pay off my equipment m. Which I paid for myself via a local “authorised” dealer
Then I didn’t pay the dealer for “all” the equipment.
Then they said my contract specifically stated some number of months of service (I didn’t).
I referred them to my lawyer. Never heard from them again.

I’m really surprised they’re still out there doing business. But I had other options.
I can just imagine what people put up with if they have no other choice at all.

Blake C. Stacey (profile) says:

On this general topic, there’s an interesting opinion column in Physics, the news service of the big professional society for American physicists, calling for satellite regulation. An excerpt:

First, tens of thousands of new objects in LEO mean that there would be more pieces of “stuff” that need to be avoided by other “stuff:” One spacecraft crashing into another orbiting object could start a cascade of collisions that could create a volume of debris a million times larger than that of the two initially colliding objects. It is already challenging to keep track of both the currently operating spacecraft in LEO and the thousands upon thousands of pieces of space junk from derelict spacecraft and rocket bodies. Adding to this problem makes no sense.

Second, putting so many spacecraft in LEO is a threat to safely launching other satellites to higher altitude orbits. Most space researchers believe that we need more scientific “eyes in the sky” at middle Earth orbit (about 2000–30,000 km altitude) and at geostationary Earth orbit (around 36,000 km). If things become too congested in LEO, it may become impossible to safely launch rockets through to these higher observing perches. By the same token, it is crucial to allow crewed or robotic vehicles to safely pass through LEO on their return to Earth. We cannot allow an impenetrable barrier to form around our planet.

Finally, a huge swarm of smallsats could diminish astronomers’ ability to observe the cosmos from Earth’s surface (see Drawing a Line in the Sky: Astronomers Confront Satellite Threat). No matter how carefully designed, any satellite will reflect sunlight and block the transmission of light from distant astronomical objects. A massive cloud of small spacecraft may corrupt the view of the night sky (or even of the day sky!) and make ground-based astronomy nearly impossible, which would have a tragic impact for key fields of science.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...