The Next Space Race Is Being Run By Lawyers

SpaceX says a competitor is obstructing its plans to build a space-based internet.

by Jason Koebler
Jul 22 2015, 9:17pm

Image: SpaceX/Flickr

The race to deliver the internet from space isn't primarily playing out in engineering laboratories and among rocket scientists. Instead, most of the fireworks are happening in federal registries as lawyers spar over regulatory issues.

Two companies, SpaceX and OneWeb, are trying to launch an array of satellites capable of delivering fiber-level speeds to any point on Earth. SpaceX is the presumptive favorite, as Elon Musk's company has proven itself capable of making its own way to space, and it's got $1 billion from Google and Fidelity to play around with. OneWeb, started by industry veteran Greg Wyler, is no slouch either: It's got backing from Virgin CEO Richard Branson and the largest launch deal of all time, sponsored by a European multinational corporation called Arianespace. It's also got money coming in from Intelsat, one of the largest satellite manufacturers in the world.

That last deal is where things get interesting: Earlier this month, Intelsat filed an "informal complaint" with the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to prevent SpaceX from launching two experimental satellites to test the technology.

Intelsat said in the complaint that SpaceX's satellite communications could interfere with Intelsat's existing infrastructure and said that it's possible SpaceX's satellites could collide with Intelsat's as they are making their way to geostationary orbit, which is a higher orbit than the low Earth orbits both OneWeb and SpaceX plan on using. Intelsat also demanded that the FCC reject SpaceX's request to keep specific details of its experimental plan confidential.

Earlier today, we took a look at Intelsat's case, now we've obtained SpaceX's response to Intelsat's original complaint, which argues that Intelsat's complaint should be rejected outright and is quick to draw the OneWeb-Intelsat connection.

"It should be noted that Intelsat has invested in and entered into a 'strategic alliance' with OneWeb, an announced competitor to SpaceX's system," SpaceX's lawyers wrote.

OneWeb's ground station. Image: Jason Koebler

Intelsat noted that SpaceX had not given specific information about why its satellites would not interfere with their own satellites.

As you'd expect, SpaceX's lawyers wrote that Intelsat's "assertions are incorrect" and released some additional information about how its own satellites would function on the "Ku band," the type of spectrum both OneWeb and SpaceX hope to use. SpaceX engineers made their own calculations for the probability of a SpaceX-Intelsat collision and said that it "results in the lowest and most negligible non-zero collision risk possible, with probabilities on an order of less than 1 in 1 quadrillion."

SpaceX also says that it will only use its experimental satellites for about 10 minutes a day and released numbers suggesting that its potential for interrupting Ku band transmissions falls well within FCC guidelines.

"Given that SpaceX is, in good faith, providing Intelsat and the general public with additional information (beyond what is typically required) to facilitate its analysis with regard to potential interference … Intelsat's objection to this experiment should be denied and the SpaceX application for experimental license should be granted without further delay," SpaceX wrote.

The lawyers aren't just battling this out with the FCC, however. Richard Branson told Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year that OneWeb is the only company who can feasibly build space internet infrastructure with the bandwidth that's available at an international level, which is managed by the International Telecommunications Union.

"[OneWeb] has the rights, and there isn't enough spectrum space for another network—like there physically is not enough space," he said.

Whether that's truly the case is anyone's guess: The ITU put out a report earlier this year asserting that mere intent to build a network is not enough to snag that spectrum always and forever.

"The coordination process is a two way process and no administration obtains any particular priority as a result of being the first to start either the advance publication phase or the request for coordination procedure," the report said.

It's impossible to analyze the merits of either company's case here without having all the information the FCC has (and without being an expert in satellite spectrum issues). But the takeaway here is that there is much more to building a commercial network of internet satellites than merely getting the science and engineering correct.

SpaceX has increasingly found itself playing the lobbying game, as it's been trying to convince Congress to stop allowing government contractors such as United Launch Alliance from buying Russian-made rocket engines.

Now, it finds itself engaged with another competitor with deep pockets and plenty of regulatory experience. The winner of this space race may come down to has better lawyers, not better engineers.

Next up, Intelsat will have the opportunity to respond to SpaceX's response. What is usually a pretty straightforward process that takes about six weeks could drag on for months to come.

Correction, 7/23/15: An earlier version of this article called Arianespace a German company. It is actually a European multinational corporation.