Ahead of SpaceX Starlink launch, T-Mobile asks FCC to auction satellite spectrum for 5G use

Armed with super-fast 5G wireless hardware, cellular carriers have already targeted broadband cable providers — now they’re butting heads with satellite companies as well. While Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been preparing to launch its first “Starlink” high-speed broadband satellites tomorrow, T-Mobile has asked the FCC to quickly reallocate a range of satellite radio frequencies for use in terrestrial 5G cellular systems, reports FierceWireless. T-Mobile’s efforts demonstrate how 5G is forcing governments to quickly consider the best uses of limited radio spectrum, as previously unconnected industries begin to wrestle over access to the airwaves.

Despite having previously obtained rights to midband and high-frequency radio spectrum, satellite operators have generally struggled in the United States. While SiriusXM has enjoyed some success with satellite radio services, satellite phone, television, and internet services have been limited by signal latency, equipment size, and coverage issues. Some of the problems are inescapable due to the use of distant satellites, while others can be mitigated with massive satellite deployments and state-of-the-art equipment.

To that end, SpaceX has spent years planning a huge collection of modern satellites, recently named Starlink. According to SpaceX, Starlink will be able to deliver 5G-like speeds of 1Gbps to users and reach billions of underserved people across the globe. The company’s most recently publicized plan calls for nearly 12,000 satellites to be split into two elevations, each operating at different radio frequencies: roughly 7,500 satellites at 40-75GHz, plus around 4,400 satellites at 12-18 GHz and 26-40Ghz. Tomorrow’s launch is expected to place two test Starlink satellites in orbit, with a complete network available in the mid-2020s.

T-Mobile’s simultaneous lobbying efforts aren’t specifically intended to undermine SpaceX, but they do illustrate how terrestrial 5G providers are itching to build high-speed wireless networks now, using some radio spectrum previously allocated to satellites. While companies such as Intel and Intelsat have proposed controlling the sale of their 3.7-4.2 GHz radio spectrum, the third-ranked U.S. cellular company asked the FCC to auction off that “midband” satellite spectrum, preventing satellite companies from holding up 5G deployments with monopolistic pricing, delays, or closed-door deals. T-Mobile also asked that high-frequency bands in the 24-47GHz range “be auctioned together as quickly as possible.”

Midband radio spectrum has emerged as a key enabler of 5G wireless, expected to be used across Europe as well as China, Japan, and Korea. Multiple governments have tentatively agreed to allocate various bands within the 3.1 to 4.99GHz range for 5G use, alongside higher frequency “millimeter wave” bands, each potentially at the expense of satellite companies.

The upshot? Whether they’re provided by satellites or cellular towers, next-generation communication services are going to be covering the world over the next decade, and they’re going to be impressively powerful — assuming governments work quickly to allocate radio spectrum to make that possible.

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