Policy

Elon Musk’s satellites are in the middle of a corporate dogpile at the FCC

Companies are battling in regulatory comments and legal filings over the launching of more satellites than humanity has ever put into the skies.

The trail of a shooting star or satellite visible against the stars of the night sky

Beneath the surface of a court case about environmental reviews and interference with TV signals is a corporate clash over satellites.

Photo: Mariana Suarez/AFP via Getty Images

Scale matters, SpaceX’s lawyer argued to a panel of three federal appeals court judges — but only the comparatively small-scale plans for upcoming satellite launches, not the gargantuan scale of Elon Musk’s ambitions in the sky and the coming frenzy of launches from some of the most powerful companies on the ground.

“That is only 2,800 satellites here,” Pratik Shah said during a Friday hearing. He assured the court the issue wasn’t 4,400 or so satellites originally on the license the Federal Communications Commission granted to SpaceX. Nor was it the additional 38,000 that Musk’s company plans to put into space worldwide someday as part of its Starlink network or even the 100,000, including replacements, that SpaceX might need to put on rockets over the life of the program.

“That’s incredibly important,” Shah added.

Although estimates vary, there are perhaps 8,000 satellites above Earth right now, many of them from Starlink, which claims it can bring internet service to all corners of the globe. The judges, who will have to weigh in on challenges to the FCC’s authorization for SpaceX to operate some future satellites at a lower altitude than first planned, had occasionally struggled with the implications of such exponential increase in what objects are zooming around miles over our heads.

The lawsuit has all the trappings of ever-iterative governmental bureaucracy: an appeal by two rival businesses and a group of scientists to a court, claiming an agency ignored existing laws when it allowed a modification to an older order. Amid the flurry of filings and endless process arguments, though, the controversy has illuminated how billionaires and corporate giants hoping to rule the skies actually battle one another, with the government stuck in the middle.

How high?

Back in 2018, the FCC authorized SpaceX to launch 4,425 Starlink satellites with the goal of providing satellite-based internet service “where it is difficult and expensive to build terrestrial communications networks,” as the commission would later put it in a legal filing. SpaceX got approval later that year for another 7,000 or so satellites in its planned “constellation,” creating a serious possibility that Musk alone would be launching more satellites into the sky than have ever before existed. Competitors fretted it was a ploy to monopolize space, and on Sunday, the new director-general of the European Space Agency essentially said as much in an interview with the Financial Times.

SpaceX then sought permission to operate much of the original batch of satellites at a significantly lower altitude than first proposed: up to around 350 miles above the surface of the Earth, rather than about 810 miles. Musk’s company said the change would allow Starlink to better deliver on its promises, but rivals are instead complaining that the modifications signal SpaceX is jerking the government around and is ill-prepared to make good on its vows.

Earlier this year, SpaceX ultimately got what it wanted, over the objections of several other companies. So Viasat, which operates a rival satellite internet service, sued, joining with a group of scientists to allege the FCC had failed to do a required environmental review on the updated SpaceX plan. Together they warned that “millions of pounds of pollutants will be dumped into the atmosphere,” harming the ozone layer and contaminating the night sky with light. The plaintiffs also said Starlink was dramatically raising the risk of space debris and collisions “that could make low-earth orbit unusable for a lifetime or more.” SpaceX has faced other complaints about its disregard for its impact on the environment — though the case does raise a novel question about whether the requirements of environmental reviews extend outside of the atmosphere, to space.

Viasat isn’t alone: Dish joined the suit too, saying the plan would impermissibly interfere with satellite TV service to 22 million homes. Together, the two satellite companies and the scientists had their day in court on Friday as they argued about whether the FCC had really done all it was supposed to do.

‘We will disqualify you and move on’

SpaceX is continuing to rack up an impressive list of corporate foes. Amazon, which is also sprinting to get into the satellite internet game with its $10 billion Project Kuiper, has urged the FCC to reject other aspects of SpaceX’s Starlink proposals, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin unsuccessfully sued SpaceX over a NASA contract.

As if that weren’t enough, both communications and legacy aerospace firms are now involved: Verizon has partnered with Project Kuiper, and just last month, Boeing got in on the game to build a new satellite internet constellation.

The spat between Bezos’ business and SpaceX spawned a billionaire war of words. In September, Amazon wrote an eight-page letter to the FCC deriding not only SpaceX but also Musk personally. The document described Musk’s view as: “[R]ules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks.”

The week before, Musk had tweeted of Bezos: “Filing legal actions against SpaceX is *actually* his full-time job.”

As the companies battle each other in an attempt to use government regulation to get a leg up, the FCC, which in court is defending the license approvals that benefitted SpaceX, has also said it has concerns about whether Musk’s satellite network will really do what it’s supposed to — or at least, where it’s supposed to do it.

In the waning weeks of the Trump administration, the FCC awarded SpaceX nearly $900 million in subsidies to support the company’s planned efforts to bring broadband to rural areas. Some critics suggested the awards were a “boondoggle” by Ajit Pai, the FCC’s Republican chairman at the time, and skeptics said the agency was allocating funds for “rural” areas that were actually airports, parking lots, universities providing their own internet, malls and other urban locales.

By July, under Democratic acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel, the commission said it was trying to pull back funds that had been awarded for service that doesn’t actually need to exist. “This program can do great things, but it requires thoughtful oversight,” Rosenworcel said at the time.

Recipients of the funds received letters offering “an opportunity to withdraw their funding requests from those places already with service or where significant questions of waste have been raised,” the FCC said. In the case of Starlink, which received a huge portion of the program’s money, the commission’s letter included more than 120 pages of census tracts.

“For those applicants who are dragging their feet or can’t meet their obligations, follow the rules or we will disqualify you and move on,” Rosenworcel warned.

In the meantime, Starlink, for which Musk has global aspirations that are producing similar global conflicts, just left beta testing and has begun its customer rollout. Wide-scale launches and pre-orders, however, are being hampered by chip shortages, SpaceX recently said.

Musk has also suggested his company itself might be its own worst enemy: In a recent letter warning of a “genuine risk of bankruptcy” at SpaceX over concerns about the production of Raptor engines, the CEO was direct about how the “crisis” could affect the Starlink satellites that are supposed to ride on the rockets.

If SpaceX “can not get enough reliable Raptors made,” Musk wrote, “we then can’t fly Starlink.”

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