SpaceX and Dish’s Super-Shady War for the World

Or, why three billionaires are girding for battle over spectrum supremacy—and why it matters

3 min read
map of globe with blue orbs of light around

Billionaires, satellite links, political chicanery: a present-day, oligopolistic game of jockeying for prime placement in the 12-gigahertz spectrum has at least a few of the ingredients of a thriller. Or—given the outsize personalities involved (including Elon Musk and Michael Dell) and the epic, five-year duration of the dispute to date—maybe more like a space opera.

At issue is a set of frequencies where Musk’s SpaceX sets its Starlink Internet service, the company’s well-publicized play for broadband beaming down from low-Earth orbit to satellite dishes in remote areas. Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network Corp., which transmits TV on these frequencies and is one of the two big satellite viewing providers in the United States, has launched a 5G wireless service and wants to increase its signal volume in this wavelength. Musk’s side says the move would make debilitating static for his satellites; Ergen’s engineers say that’s nonsense. As for Dell (you may recall Dell laptops) his private investment firm holds interest in some of the airwaves in play. At the moment, they’re siding with Dish.

The current field, more precisely 12.2 to 12.7 GHz in the Ku microwave band, is a lot of bandwidth lightly used—primarily today for assorted satellite broadcasts, live feeds, ISS tracking, and military recon drones. But the corporates fighting over it recently cranked up their clashing. The sides are lobbying a shorthanded Federal Communications Commission, with recent highlight swipes including Musk blasting his foes as “super shady and unethical” while taking return fire from Dish for “flimsy” and “far-fetched” objections to opening bandwidth.

But what’s it mean for those outside the immediate fray? For civilians going about their daily business? For people—possible satellite service subscribers, all—around the world?

Only a handful of people who understand the nature of possible interference and related issues seem to be paying attention now. “Rights to use frequencies have not been sharply defined, and the overlapping permits generate controversy,” says Thomas Hazlett, a Clemson University economist who writes about bandwidth battles (and once served as FCC chief economist). But the rulings—and market activities that result—stand to have real social impact wherever signals from satellite broadcasts or satellite Internet connections may one day fall. Which means pretty much everywhere.

It’s a stark contrast given the economic value placed on frequency rights. More than 100 bandwidth auctions over the last 30 years have netted about US $280 billion for the U.S. Treasury. And as with television, radio, and the railway before that, citizens aren’t likely to tune in until more tangible developments happen. But others are paying attention, and the pressures are intense. “In the U.S., it is purely market driven,” says Shahed Mazumder, global director of telecom solutions at Aerospike, a database firm. SpaceX has launched thousands of new satellites; Dish is trying to move into new services. Neither wants interference.

“The political pressure, the business pressure, the monetary pressure: There are legitimately major things going on here,” says Mike Dano, who’s been following the dispute as editorial director at Light Reading, a news website covering international teleco. Billions of dollars of value, potentially, to be created or destroyed depending on how an FCC engineer finally decides on it.” Meanwhile the politically appointed commissioners at the FCC are down one member, splitting it 2-2 along party lines. It makes controversial calls more difficult.

More techie influences may also affect the spectrum spat. In 2018 the United States became the first to approve a spectrum-sharing setup in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band (3.5 GHz). It’s an advanced concept allowing different sets of users to share spectrum—making more room. Dano says the FCC is under pressure to allocate 12 GHz in a way set up for spectrum sharing.

This notably did not happen with U.S 5G network rollouts, which turned into a snarling issue earlier this year over fears of interference in the C-band between high-speed cellular service towers and plane altimeters in low-visibility conditions on approach to airports.

Meanwhile Starlink wants to open its satellite show in further-flung places, seeking to open gateways in the United Kingdom. While its 12-GHz fight with Dish is centered in the United States and Dish’s U.S. services, satellite spectrum allocation is...special. Space has international dimensions, points out Plum Consulting’s Selçuk Kırtay, who was writing about spectrum sharing in 2002. Slicing up the Ku band has history—it even left its mark at a global astronautical confab in then-Czechoslovakia in Star Wars-era 1977.

Ofcom, the U.K. regulator, is monitoring developments with U.S. allocations in 12 GHz. The German network authority is preparing to discuss the 12.2-to-12.7-GHz frequency range at next year’s ITU World Radiocommunication Conference in the United Arab Emirates.

Stay tuned, say experts and satellite industry watchers. “How the conflicts are resolved in the USA will materially affect markets around the world,” Hazlett says.

This article appears in the October 2022 print issue as “Billionaires Battle for Global Spectrum Domination.”

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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