Dish blasts back at SpaceX over 12 GHz claims

As Dish Network prepares to show how it’s meeting its June 14th requirement of offering 5G to 20% of the U.S. population, the satellite TV operator is battling new allegations from SpaceX over the 12 GHz band.

Dish and SpaceX have been at odds over the 12 GHz band for over a year now. The conflict between the two ratcheted up last week when SpaceX accused Dish of meddling in its attempt to help people in Ukraine.

Specifically, “as part of its argument about service to enable mobile platforms in the United States, Dish criticizes SpaceX CEO Elon Musk for responding to the Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister’s request for ideas ‘to keep Starklinks & life-saving services online’ in Ukraine,” SpaceX wrote in a filing with the FCC. “While one can hope that Dish made this condemnation in error, these tactics nonetheless highlight the lengths to which Dish will go so long as the commission inexplicably leaves the 12 GHz proceeding open.”

Dish responded today with a filing that cites seven tweets from SpaceX and its CEO Elon Musk, most of which have nothing to do with Ukraine and more to do with how Starlink can be used in traditionally hard-to-reach areas and while moving.  

Dish asserts that SpaceX has been encouraging Starlink users to operate their terminals when moving on planes, boats and recreational vehicles, which it says is against the law in the U.S., where SpaceX has not received approval from the FCC for Earth Station in Motion (ESIM) operations. SpaceX ignored Dish’s earlier demands that it stop issuing such statements and retract what it already said about using devices in moving vehicles.

“Rather than address its conduct, SpaceX shamefully invokes the tragic invasion of a country to shield itself from liability for violating the commission’s rules,” Dish told the commission in its June 13 filing. “To be clear, Dish does not object to ESIM use of Starlink terminals in Ukraine.”

Dish said it doesn’t object to Starlink using other bands where ESIM use is permitted, but it doesn’t want it using the 12 GHz band for ESIM operations.

“That is a significant issue that we are concerned about” for millions of Dish satellite TV subscribers, said Jeff Blum, EVP of External & Legislative Affairs at Dish. While losing subscribers, Dish ended the first quarter of 2022 with 7.99 million satellite TV customers.

SpaceX has not responded to those concerns “and that is something that is going to have to be resolved,” Blum told Fierce last week. “We believe that SpaceX’s systems will harmfully interfere with satellite television.”

One of Dish’s allies in the 12 GHz proceeding is RS Access, which has been trying to raise the profile of a new study by RKF that confirmed an earlier study’s finding that 5G mobile broadband operations and non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) fixed-satellite service can share the 12 GHz band without disruption to either service.

Blum said the engineering shows “we can have sharing in this band. Our preference is not to fight with Starlink. We would like to share this band.”

To do nothing and leave the restrictive 20-year-old rules in place would be a mistake, he said. And since Dish is currently the primary user of 12 GHz, if it believed 5G would be harmful, it wouldn’t advocate for these changes, he noted.

RS Access also is urging the FCC to act swiftly to authorize 5G operations in the 12 GHz band and sees no reason the FCC can’t move ahead quickly, even with a 2:2 tie with Republicans and Democrats on the commission as it awaits the approval of a fifth appointee.

V. Noah Campbell, CEO of RS Access, said from his perspective, the FCC has all the information it needs to reach a decision. “We are very confident in the work that RKF has produced proving out co-existence of 12 GHz and we view the record as complete,” showing the potential for a win-win here, he told Fierce.

Analyst: ESIM issue ‘unlikely to be material’

In a research note for investors today, New Street Research (NSR) analyst Blair Levin said the first question he and his team heard from investors about the most recent dispute came from inquiries into whether Starlink is now offering a service that represents a new competitive threat to the mobile wireless industry. “The answer is no,” he said. “As Musk’s tweet notes, the antenna is too big for cars.”

But he also addressed another big question. Why might Starlink be advertising receivers for mobile vehicles? That answer appears to boil down to its desire to make it harder to grant a 5G for 12 GHz Coalition petition by enabling Starlink to claim that doing so will cause damage for customers who may have purchased receivers for their RVs and campers, according to the analyst. “To us, there are several signs that this is the strategy, including that the disputed spectrum represents less than 5% of Starlink’s spectrum footprint and thus was not necessary to provide this service to this customer segment,” he wrote.

The strategy is not likely to work, according to Levin, who also doesn’t think the ESIM issue will affect the outcome of the 12 GHz proceeding. The FCC continues to study the issues around the 12 GHz band, which FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has characterized as exceedingly complex.

If it does turn out in Dish’s favor, it presumably would have a lot more spectrum with which to build its mobile 5G network and fixed wireless access (FWA) as well.