DISH Network, now known as EchoStar Corporation, is keeping the Federal Communications Commission busy.
The company, which owns pay-TV and satellite operations, sent two separate filings to the agency over its concerns about spectrum usage and ownership. The first was a petition seeking reconsideration of the FCC’s permission for SpaceX to operate in a certain band of airwaves that it believes interferes with its own operations. These airwaves are critical to SpaceX’s tests for space-to-ground cell service.
Separately, it sent a letter to the FCC reiterating its request to take a look at the rules limiting the amount of spectrum one company can own, a veiled shot at T-Mobile’s aggressive acquisition of spectrum.
The two filings underscore how the battle over spectrum — radio airwaves critical for cellular service — could be a major theme for 2024. The use and ownership of spectrum isn’t just an abstract concept — the company that owns the most of what is a limited resource doled out by the government has a competitive edge in offering the most robust service. Alternatively, companies that don’t have enough spectrum or can’t use the airwaves they own because of limitations are at a disadvantage, meaning you could have fewer viable carriers to choose from.
Last month, SpaceX was granted permission to test its mobile-satellite system, a program it announced alongside T-Mobile more than a year ago. A few days later, it launched the first rockets to bring up its Gen2 Starlink satellites, which would beam down service to phones on the ground.
Offering satellite-based service would help eliminate much of the dead zones in America, giving people reception as long as they had line of sight to the satellite above.
But EchoStar (which still uses the DISH name in the filing) argues that the satellites operating in the 1910 to 1915 MHz and 1990 to 1995 MHz bands risk interfering with its own operations. The company argues that the limitations placed on the test are “meaningless” given each satellite is given 10 days of test time, and the total time “would be for the equivalent of centuries.”
The problem is those airwaves, collectively known as G Block, sit next to EchoStar’s own H Block spectrum, and the company feels it’s too close for comfort.
“The potential for harmful interference has yet to be fully analyzed and resolved by the Commission,” it argued.
EchoStar is asking for a halt to future tests (which are already underway) until SpaceX can demonstrate specific need for those tests. It’s also seeking the test limit SpaceX to testing just 10 satellites, vs. the hundreds of satellites it has planned.
SpaceX wasn’t available for comment, but executives from the company had previously downplayed the risk of interference.
Separately, EchoStar (again, filing under the DISH name) sent a letter to the FCC asking for the agency to apply a more “stringent, and more rigorously enforced” set of rules governing how much spectrum a company can own in each market, known as a spectrum screen. The company is calling for the FCC to limit ownership to just 25% in each market, with each screen applied on a county-by-county basis. It’s also asking for the FCC to issue of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which would kick off a process to more formally look at spectrum ownership policy.
The company has a vested interest in allowing more companies to buy spectrum in each market because it has the weakest position out of all the major wireless players.
And while EchoStar’s move to limit spectrum ownership could hurt the big three wireless carriers, it’s really taking a shot at T-Mobile. Only T-Mobile is referenced in the filing, although only in the footnotes. T-Mobile has accumulated the most spectrum in the coveted “mid-band,” which is seen as ideal for 5G service, and already boasts top marks for its wireless service.
T-Mobile acquired much of its spectrum from buying Sprint, which ironically helped supercharge EchoStar’s own mobile ambitions, since T-Mobile was required to spin off Boost Mobile to then-DISH. DISH is separately fighting T-Mobile’s proposed deal to buy Columbia Capital for its spectrum, arguing that the wireless carrier would control too much in a single market.
A T-Mobile spokesperson wasn’t immediately available to comment on the filling.
Whether this spurs the FCC to make a move on any of these issues is unclear. But EchoStar doesn’t appear to be staying quiet on either issue.