05.09.19

Backing winners?

Posted in Broadband, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 3:13 pm by timfarrar

I noted a couple of weeks ago that SpaceX was putting the FCC under considerable pressure to approve its April 5 request for Special Temporary Authority to operate its initial tranche of Starlink satellites. However, rather than giving approval for this STA, on April 26 the FCC instead approved SpaceX’s November 2018 license modification.

Buried in this order is a key waiver sought by SpaceX, which is fundamentally different from the authorizations granted to other NGSO players (including Theia, whose license was approved at today’s FCC Open Meeting):

28. Waiver of ITU Finding Required Under Section 25.146(a). In the SpaceX Authorization, the Commission required that SpaceX receive a favorable or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU with respect to compliance with applicable EPFD limits in Article 22 of the ITU Radio Regulations prior to commencing operations. SpaceX asserts that the ITU will not examine the modified filing in this respect anytime soon and in light of its expedited deployment schedule, requests a waiver of this condition prior to the initiation of service. OneWeb and the GSO Satellite Operators, request that the Commission deny SpaceX’s waiver request. SES and O3b, argue that any waiver grant addresses the timing of the ITU filing and is conferred at SpaceX’s own risk. Given the ITU’s timeframe for examining SpaceX’s modified filing and the fact that SpaceX presents EPFD calculations using the ITU software, we agree that this condition should not deter SpaceX start of operations. Thus, SpaceX’s request for waiver of the requirement to receive a favorable or “qualified favorable” finding prior to commencing operations is granted. We retain the requirement, however, that SpaceX receive the favorable or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU, and in case of an unfavorable finding, adjust its operation to satisfy the ITU requirements. Accordingly, operations of SpaceX’s system, as modified prior to the ITU’s finding, are at SpaceX’s own risk.

While other systems like Theia are required to receive ITU approval “prior to the initiation of service”, SpaceX has now been given permission to provide service over the Starlink system unless and until a final ITU finding is published. This appears to reflect the FCC’s view of SpaceX as a potential winner in the NGSO race and a desire to enable operations to begin as soon as possible. In addition, SpaceX appears to be receiving strong backing from other agencies within the US government for the capabilities that Starlink is expected to make available.

So next week on May 15, SpaceX plans to launch “dozens of satellites” (perhaps as many as 40-50 from what I’ve heard in Washington DC this week), although it remains unclear what technologies are actually onboard these satellites. It seems that the satellites include a variety of different designs (launching everything “including the kitchen sink”) and there may even be some non-communications payloads onboard.

It appears that the launch will be accompanied by a publicity blitz to set the scene for a major fundraising effort immediately thereafter, with one feature of this PR campaign being SpaceX’s production line in Redmond, described to me as “more impressive” than OneWeb’s factory in Florida. But SpaceX clearly believes that numbers are important, and will be comparing the number of satellites it has launched to the 6 satellites launched by OneWeb in February. So I expect SpaceX’s fundraising target will also exceed the $1.25B raised by OneWeb in March and will include more of the wild predictions we’ve heard for Tesla in recent weeks as well as on the SpaceX fundraising call in early April.

That sets the scene for a race between OneWeb and SpaceX to launch as many satellites as possible in the next 6-12 months: OneWeb is claiming it will be launching 35 satellites per month starting in the fall, and SpaceX is suggesting it may also have 2-6 more launches by the end of the year (helpfully filling a hole in its Falcon 9 manifest as the demand for GEO launches continues to slow, but clearly requiring a substantial financial commitment).

In comparison, other proposed systems like Telesat and LeoSat will be far behind, and even though these systems may have designs which are more optimized for their target markets, it could become increasingly difficult for either system to attract the attention and funding they need to move forward, without backing from major strategic investors. Speculation is likely to focus on Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans, but unlike Elon Musk’s “build it and they will come” mentality, I expect Jeff Bezos is more likely to want to put together a solid plan before committing to spend many billions of dollars on such an effort.

But the most important thing of all is whether investors believe Elon Musk’s predictions and will now throw billions of dollars at his Starlink vision. A shortfall in the amount raised, as seems to have been the case in all of SpaceX’s various funding rounds over the last year, will keep the pressure on the company after a series of costly issues (most notably the loss of the Crew Dragon capsule). On the other hand, if he is able to raise a couple of billion dollars, SpaceX and OneWeb could make this into a two horse LEO constellation race over the next couple of years. So I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see the launch next week and what the subsequent fundraising effort reveals about investors’ confidence in both the project and (more importantly) in Elon himself.