ViaSat Asks FCC To Investigate Space X For Space Pollution

from the competitive-elbowing dept

So we've already noted how Space X's Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service isn't going to revolutionize the broadband industry. The service lacks the capacity to service dense urban or suburban areas, meaning it won't pose much of a threat to traditional cable and fiber providers. With a $100 monthly price tag and $500 hardware fee, it's not exactly a miracle cure for the millions of low-income Americans struggling to afford a broadband connection, either.

That said: if you're currently one of the 42 million Americans who lacks access to any broadband at all, the service, capping out at 100 Mbps, is going to be damn-near miraculous. It's also going to be a significant upgrade for those currently stuck on last-generation expensive, capped, and sluggish traditional satellite lines.

Enter ViaSat, which clearly isn't keen on having its captive business market disrupted. The company this week urged the FCC to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s low-orbit Starlink constellation, arguing that the fledgling system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth. Since the 80s, satellite systems have had a baked in exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), excluding their businesses from environmental review. But the 12,000 lower orbit satellites Space X intends to launch should change that equation, ViaSat argues:

"given the sheer quantity of satellites at issue here, as well as the unprecedented nature of SpaceX’s treatment of them as effectively expendable, the potential environmental harms associated with SpaceX’s proposed modification are significant,” the company stated.

“Relying on the Commission’s decades-old categorical exemption to avoid even inquiring into the environmental consequences of SpaceX’s modification proposal would not only violate NEPA, but also would needlessly jeopardize the environmental, aesthetic, health, safety, and economic interests that it seeks to protect, and harm the public interest,” Viasat continued.

ViaSat's motivations here are in part anti-competitive to be sure, but that doesn't mean there's not a problem. A massive rise in lower orbit, cheaper satellites means a lot more junk and orbital debris floating around, putting other space craft at risk. ViaSat also argues this unprecedented rise in spacecraft also means more satellites burning up in orbit, which in turn can create environmental hazards like the production of ozone-destroying chemicals from launch vehicles to chemicals released when satellites burn up in re-entry:

"The petition cites research by The Aerospace Corporation on atmospheric impacts of launches and reentries. At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this month, the organization presented research that concluded that the rise of satellite megaconstellations could increase the mass of satellites reentering the atmosphere from about 100 metric tons a year to as much as 3,200 metric tons."

Again, ViaSat's likely playing some competitive games here while also citing serious issues. Issues the FCC hasn't really paid much attention to as it greenlights not only the launch of Starlink, but Amazon's massive low-orbit satellite ambitions. This is all before you get to issues of massive light pollution caused by these systems, a problem Musk claimed wouldn't happen (right before it did), and something scientists recently argued can't be easily fixed, if it can be fixed at all.

The inquiry was enough to get Elon Musk to comment on Twitter, calling ViaSat's inquiry "sneaky":

It should be noted that Charlie Ergen is CEO of Dish Network, not ViaSat. And while Musk is probably right that ViaSat is largely interested in preventing disruption of its largely-captive market, at the same time we've noted how regulators aren't really taking many of these problems particularly seriously as they stand around in slack-jawed awe at the somewhat innovative potential of emerging low-orbit satellite tech.

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Filed Under: competition, elon musk, fcc, low earth orbit, satellite broadband, space pollution, starlink
Companies: space x, viasat


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Jan 2021 @ 3:42pm

    Reaching

    The mention of rocket pollution as a concern for the launch of the sattalites themselves is clear reaching. If it is legal to send rockets up it doesn't matter if it is carrying a used sports car, a block of concrete, or a moduke for the ISS.

    If there is an actual reason to be concerned about launch numbers regulate the number of flights or ammount of whatever bad stuff released. Otherwise it is akin to demanding a limit on computer imports due to shipping liner pollution while allowing unlimited imports of TVs, movie projectors, anvils, and industrial lathes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Jan 2021 @ 4:28pm

      Re: Reaching

      Which really absolutely should be a thing. But you know, externalize all the things.

      ...

      While there are valid points, i would just commit the argumentum ad hominem fallacy and say, "lol whatevs, viasat, you are clearly only pursuing an end-run in furtherance of your interests".

      And the Musk tweets like a moron. Nooooobody talks that way.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Jan 2021 @ 4:26pm

    "The mention of rocket pollution as a concern for the launch of the sattalites themselves is clear reaching. "

    Why?
    Assuming rocket pollution is the same thing as the common term of Space Junk, there is concern relative to launch window. Launch delay can be expensive. It is not prevalent yet, but it has happened. Also orbital maneuvers, but that is another story.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2021 @ 12:55pm

      Re:

      The answer - because all rocket launches cause it restricting regulation it to low earth orbit satellite launches only is nonsensical." If it was related to say the manuvering reaction mass and propulsion of the satellites themselves that would be actually relevant for the subset.

      It is akin to disparate comparisons for transparent lying with statistics - for example calculating the efficency of a fuel cell natural gas generator as having the gas there "for free" while a conventional NG turbine generator includes both average tranmission losses and average energy cost of natural gas transport.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2021 @ 1:25pm

        Re: Re:

        Ok ... I guess.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        OGquaker, 7 Jan 2021 @ 4:28pm

        Re: Re: Right on

        example calculating the efficiency of a fuel cell natural gas generator as having the gas there "for free" while a conventional NG turbine generator includes both average transmission losses and average energy cost of natural gas transport.
        Good analogy, but you need an editor real bad

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bhull242 (profile), 6 Jan 2021 @ 7:41am

    I’m torn. On one hand, I seriously question the motives involved here. On the other hand, I am concerned about the issues at play here and think they should really be examined here. On the other other hand, I’m not sure how much the government will actually get involved here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous, 6 Jan 2021 @ 6:15pm

    How about some fact checking?

    "capping out at 100 Mbps"

    Uh, except that it is not capped at all, and in fact there have been numerous posts on Reddit of speedtests showing results far beyond 100Mbps.

    "It should be noted that Charlie Ergen is CEO of Dish Network"

    Uh, except that he is not. He is chairman of the board.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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