Charlie Ergen of Dish Network and Michael Dell of Dell Technologies have a plan to open up little-used wireless frequencies to millions of customers with a new 5G service. However, another billionaire strenuously objects. Elon Musk’s SpaceX filed an objection with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which governs airwaves distribution, saying the “scheme” would wreck his broadband-from-orbit service.
Dish Network responded with an FCC filing that accused SpaceX of “flimsy” and “far-fetched” criticism. RS Access LLC, a Dell company, cited what it calls SpaceX’s “long history of misleading information, rule-flaunting, and ad hominem attacks.”
The billionaires paths collide in a swath of spectrum known as the 12 gigahertz band [1.] Ergen and Dell have asked the FCC to allow higher-power traffic in 12 gigahertz airwaves they control in cities around the U.S. That’s 82 markets including New York and Chicago for Dish, and 60 markets including Austin, Texas and Omaha, Nebraska for Dell’s airwaves company, RS Access.
Note 1. 12 GHz (more precisely 12.2-12.7 GHz Band ) is NOT one of the approved frequency bands in the revision to ITU Recommendation M.1036-6, which specifies ALL frequency bands for the TERRESTRIAL component of IMT (including IMT 2020).
The 12 GHz spectrum band is currently restricted to one-way use. License holders include SpaceX, AT&T/DirecTV, Dish and other satellite providers, as well as companies that use the spectrum for downstream fixed wireless communications.
Some license holders, including Dish and fixed wireless provider RS Access, want the FCC to allow two-way use of the band. To support that view, RS Access submitted the RKF Engineering study that concluded that two-way use of the band would not interfere with incumbent users to the FCC.
Roberson and Associates found that 1 MHz of 12 GHz spectrum can carry 3.76 times as much data as 1 MHz of 28 GHz spectrum under peak throughput conditions.
Long-time 12 GHz 5G proponent RS Access refers to a report that identifies recent technology advances for making the 12 GHz band very desirable for 5G, including Massive MIMO, beamforming and 5G carrier aggregation.
This raucous battle of billionaires stands out on the ordinarily placid docket of the FCC, which is more often limited to detailed technical concerns such as antenna characteristics and signal power/ attenuation. It reflects the fortunes to be made as the U.S. moves toward 5G networks that will be used in many places, depending on the use case. A government auction earlier this year of 5G airwaves brought in $81 billion as the largest U.S. wireless providers snapped up frequencies; another airwaves sale that could net $25 billion is under way.
“It says they ain’t making spectrum no more!” said Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman. Spectrum describes the array of frequencies that companies use to offer telecommunications.
Space X also uses the 12 gigahertz frequencies. In FCC filings the company says the proposed higher-power signals could overwhelm the faint broadband signals that travel from its orbiting fleet of 1,500 or more satellites to customers’ rooftop receiving dishes.
Currently, services in the 12 gigahertz band are limited to low power under FCC rules designed to avoid interference with other users. Airwaves with higher power are typically worth more money, since their signals can travel farther and reach more customers. The increased potency can also increase the risk of overpowering other users’ signals.
Dish “has mastered the use of empty promises and attacks on competitors,” SpaceX told the FCC in a filing. Dell’s spectrum-holding RS Access told the FCC that SpaceX is offering a “false premise.” Dish then accused SpaceX of mounting an “attempt to obfuscate the issues.”
The fight has been brewing for at least five years. Dish and other holders of 12 gigahertz airwaves in 2016 asked the FCC to boost power for terrestrial users of the airwaves, citing skyrocketing demand for mobile data. At the time SpaceX’s first Starlink broadband satellite was three years from its 2019 launch. Dish and its partners at the time suggested satellite services should lose rights in the band.
Dell’s investment firm had made its purchase of 12 gigahertz airwaves via RS Access, which reached for influence inside the Beltway. It hired former House telecommunications counsel Justin Lilley, according to an October 2020 filing. Lilley’s roster of clients has included spectrum innovator Ligado Networks, wireless giant T-Mobile US and Facebook.
Lobbying expenses surged. Dell’s MSD Capital with no lobbying expenditures since its founding in 1998, spent $150,000 on lobbying in 2020, according to data compiled by Open Secrets, a non-profit that tracks money in Washington.
Dell called then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai twice, in September and November of 2020. Ergen and Pai spoke in July of 2020. On Dec. 23, Musk called Pai — after two earlier calls between the two, according to FCC disclosure filings.
The FCC began its formal consideration with a 4-0 vote in January 2021, during the closing days of Pai’s tenure. The Republican left the agency following the presidential election, leaving the issue to the current FCC that is split 2-to-2 on partisan lines.
Supporters formed a coalition that includes Dish, Dell, policy groups and two trade groups that include Dish as a member. RS Access presented a 62-page technical study that concluded coexistence between the 5G use and the satellite services can be achieved.
SpaceX, in a filing, said the airwaves are worth far less. Still it said RS Access and Dish were seeking “a windfall” by leveraging airwaves that today are useless.
“You don’t have to have them removed from the band at all,” V. Noah Campbell, chief executive officer of RS Access, said in an interview with Bloomberg. Campbell likened the proposal to a water main that’s been used at low capacity. “We just want the pipe open,” he said.
The spectrum in question could be worth as much as $54 billion if the FCC allows the change, according to a study submitted to the FCC by a Dell owned company. SpaceX, in a filing, said the airwaves are worth far less. The company said RS Access and Dish were seeking “a windfall” by leveraging airwaves that today are useless.
Dish Network has emphasized expanded demands for its 5G service, which is designed to connect not just mobile phones, but also IoT devices including baby monitors, vehicles, aerial drones, tractors, and factory gear. Dish has emphasized expanded demands for 5G service, which is designed to connect not just mobile phones, but also devices including baby monitors, vehicles, aerial drones, tractors, and factory gear.
“This band is really good for 5G.,” Dish Executive Vice President Jeff Blum said in an interview with Bloomberg. “And it would be a missed opportunity if the commission left the status quo in place.”