Elon Musk dials up FCC Chairman Pai to discuss 12 GHz band

The battle over the 12 GHz band – one that some say could provide much-needed mid-band spectrum for 5G in the U.S. – is heating up, including among a group of unlikely collaborators. 

In an FCC filing this week, SpaceX disclosed that CEO Elon Musk was among those on a conference call (PDF) with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Monday that included discussion of the 12 GHz band. Separately, SpaceX was part of a group of players (PDF) arguing against a proposal by Dish Network that would have the FCC take a closer look at the rules for the 12 GHz band and potentially make it usable for 5G.

Here’s where it gets stranger. The signatories to the letter opposing Dish’s proposal include the aforementioned SpaceX, as well as AT&T, OneWeb, SES, Intelsat and Kepler Communications.

In another world, apparently, SES and Intelsat were at one another’s throats when they parted ways over the C-Band Alliance. But they share the belief that the Dish petition should be dismissed.

OneWeb is undergoing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization; it was never part of the C-Band Alliance but it’s trying to compete in the same space as a lot of other satellite players to connect the mostly unconnected.

OneWeb recently told the commission (PDF) that efforts to introduce two-way terrestrial-based mobile services in the 12 GHz band would “unnecessarily jeopardize” the promise of satellite systems like OneWeb’s “at the precise moment they are poised to deliver transformative connectivity to underserved communities and meaningfully contribute to closing the Digital Divide.”

AT&T also argues that two-way communications of the type that Dish is talking about introducing in the 12 GHz band poses an interference threat to its Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) services.

But earlier this year, AT&T indicated it wasn’t exactly in SpaceX’s camp when it registered opposition to a SpaceX request to modify its application for its satellite system; AT&T said there needs to be a determination by the ITU around compliance with power limits designed to protect services like AT&T’s DirecTV.

AT&T: Do 5G the 'right way' 

In its October 16 filing (PDF), AT&T said it opposes efforts by the Dish-led MVDDS Coalition to seek new license rights that, in its opinion, would harm DBS customers. If Dish wants to “risk sabotaging its DBS service in pursuit of another opportunity, that is of course its prerogative. However, it is not entitled to force its competitors and fellow incumbents to do the same,” AT&T wrote. Interestingly, AT&T just reported another quarter where it lost DirecTV customers – and at the same time, it sure could use some mid-band spectrum for 5G.

Dish, which gained a reputation over many years as a spectrum hoarder, is now pursuing a 5G standalone network, and AT&T argues that what Dish and its coalition members are seeking amounts to a wholesale conversion of their spectrum without any requirement that they compete against other interested parties in an auction. 

AT&T also references Dish’s entanglement with the designated entity program, saying “the commission does not take kindly to attempts to achieve multi-billion-dollar windfalls at the expense of American taxpayers, and there is no clearer illustration than the last time Dish attempted to gain a multi-billion-dollar give-way. Then Commissioner Pai decried Dish’s effort ‘to rip off the American people to the tunes of billions of dollars.’ If Dish has its way, it will happen again.”  

RELATED: SpaceX accuses MVDDS operators of 12 GHz band ‘take-over’ attempt

Meanwhile, Dish has been attempting to get more information from SpaceX to better assess the risk of interference to DBS that SpaceX’s proposed system redesign may pose. SpaceX wants to modify its authorization to lower the altitude of its proposed Starlink satellite constellation, which will operate in various spectrum bands, including the 12.2-12.7 GHz band.

“Throughout the months of August and September … SpaceX dodged Dish’s information requests,” Dish told the commission (PDF), outlining a long series of communications between Dish and SpaceX through September.

Dell weighs in 

Several recent comments in the 12 GHz proceeding back SpaceX’s plans, including from (PDF) Americans for Tax Reform and Citizens Against Government Waste. However, in Dish’s camp is Dell Technologies.

While Dish controls licenses in the band covering about 75% of the U.S. population, RS Access holds about 15% of the MVDDS spectrum in the 12 GHz band. RS Access is backed by MSD Capital, a private investment firm managing the assets of Dell founder Michael Dell and his family.

According to FCC filings, Michael Dell has spoken with FCC Chairman Pai (PDF) and other commissioners, most recently on record as of October 15, to talk about how next-generation telecom network infrastructure can better prepare the United States for its digital future. The CEO urged the commission to continue identifying spectrum for 5G, including in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band.

To hear RS Access tell it (PDF), the 12 GHz band represents an incredible opportunity for the FCC to improve carriers’ mid-band holdings in the U.S. for 5G. The spectrum is between 6 GHz and 24 GHz, comprises 500 megahertz of nationwide contiguous spectrum, isn’t encumbered by military or other federal users, and offers the possibility of 100 megahertz channels with “radically superior propagation” compared with higher frequency spectrum.

RELATED: Dish presses FCC to reject SpaceX plan for 12 GHz band

RS Access also has pointed out that SpaceX has access to more than 15,000 megahertz of spectrum and the 12 GHz Band represents about 3% of that. According to RS Access, there’s no harm in opening a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which starts a process for the FCC to collect comments and start looking at other ways to use the band.

“We very much look forward to a robust discussion of the best and highest use of this spectrum for advancing American 5G leadership,” RS Access founder V. Noah Campbell told Fierce this week.

There’s no word from the FCC on whether it will put the 12 GHz petition for an NPRM on an upcoming  agenda; the original petition was filed years ago (PDF). This past summer, outgoing Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he thinks it’s not unreasonable to have further dialogue with applicable and interested parties on the “much debated 12 GHz band.” At the time, he said: “It would certainly seem appropriate to explore the relevant issues here.”