The 12 GHz Band Is the Easy Case for Spectrum Sharing. Let the FCC Do Its Job.

SpaceX doesn't want to share the 12 GHz band, but the FCC's engineers are well-equipped to determine the best path forward.

Those following spectrum policy often hear that “the future of spectrum is sharing.” Basically, the airwaves are now so crowded that the old model of “clear and auction” federal spectrum (or even phase out/compress existing services like C-band) is unsustainable for a society as connected as ours. Plus, we need lots more spectrum for unlicensed uses. With Wi-Fi 7 coming up, we will need channel sizes of 320 MHz of contiguous spectrum to get the benefits. Wi-Fi 7 will be critical for both the new fiber-connected, multi-device smart homes and the future of virtual reality/augmented reality — technologies that need the enhanced speed and capacity that Wi-Fi 7 will deliver.

While we take for granted things like unlicensed spectrum that make Wi-Fi possible, and ubiquitous high-power mobile networks that deliver these services to consumers, these innovations were fought every inch of the way by incumbents who absolutely hated the idea of any kind of change. That hate stems from a combination of general fear of changing the spectrum environment to fear of competition from potentially new, disruptive services. Despite doomsday predictions from incumbents that any change in existing rules would cause massive destructive interference with valuable existing services, the FCC’s engineers successfully evaluated the evidence and created rules that brought us new wireless services without causing harmful (let alone destructive) interference to existing services. That’s why you can read this blog post on your phone or your tablet in a coffee shop.

Which brings me to the spectrum fight du jour, the 12 GHz band (technically the 12.2-12.7 GHz band). Dish Network and RS Access hold licenses they want expanded to provide 5G mobile services for consumers. Public Knowledge and other public interest groups support the change to promote competition in the band, but we also want the FCC to authorize unlicensed access in the band to provide needed spectrum for Wi-Fi 7. At the same time, SpaceX uses the 12 GHz band to offer its Starlink satellite service. As Public Knowledge (and just about everyone else) agrees, Starlink offers a potentially important service for rural Americans without access to either a wired or a 5G network. Accordingly, Public Knowledge and others supporting changes to the rules have also made it clear that the FCC should authorize unlicensed operation and mobile 5G only if doing so will not cause harmful interference to Starlink.

But SpaceX insists that any changes to the rules will result in destructive interference to its services. It has now launched a massive public campaign to stop the FCC from considering any rule changes. SpaceX owner, Elon Musk, has accused Dish Network’s co-founder, Charlie Ergen, of trying to “steal the 12 GHz band meant for space internet,” and told customers that Starlink will become “unusable” if the FCC authorizes any new services in the band.

This is absurd. SpaceX itself needed extensive changes to the rules for the 12 GHz band to offer Starlink – including new authorizations for its “Starlink RV” service just last month. This underscores the broader point. Introducing any new wireless service requires the FCC’s engineers to evaluate conflicting engineering studies and protests by incumbents that any change in the rules will create harmful interference. The FCC engineers are no less good at this when Musk is on the protesting end rather than the requesting end. Nor does Musk (or anyone else) own the spectrum. SpaceX did not “steal” the spectrum in 2017 when the FCC granted SpaceX’s request for rule changes – and the changes did not cause any interference to Dish Network’s DBS service (which has used the 12 GHz band since the 1990s to deliver satellite TV). 

None of this means that SpaceX’s Starlink needs to accept harmful interference. As the public interest groups involved in this proceeding have repeatedly said, SpaceX is a potentially valuable service for getting broadband out there to rural America. Fortunately, the FCC does not need to choose between SpaceX’s Starlink and expanding use of the band. FCC engineers (if permitted to do their job) will determine if the FCC can authorize needed unlicensed access for Wi-Fi 7, and mobile service to promote competition in 5G, without causing harmful interference to Starlink. This is the job the FCC engineers do every day and must continue to do if we want to meet our never-ending demand for new spectrum.

Indeed, the 12 GHz band is the easiest case at this point for the FCC to authorize sharing spectrum on either an unlicensed or licensed basis. There are no federal users to complicate matters. The band does not involve public safety users. SpaceX and other broadband providers were warned when the FCC changed the rules on their behalf in 2017 that it might change the rules in the future to allow incumbents like Dish Network to offer mobile services. So there is no surprise here, no “stealing” of the public airwaves from either billionaire – either in 2017 or today.

If the FCC engineers conclude that neither unlicensed sharing nor new mobile service in the band can coexist with Starlink, then so be it.  But if the engineers find rules that allow coexistence, then we need to trust their analysis. This is the kind of question FCC engineers must answer all the time. We should ignore the constant doomsday predictions made by every incumbent in every spectrum proceeding and let the FCC engineers do their jobs and follow the science. The fact that you are probably reading this blog post using Wi-Fi or mobile broadband is a demonstration that the FCC knows what it’s doing.