Elon Musk’s Starlink will be unusable under 5G

14 May 2023
The issues with 5G and Starlink are associated with interference both networks have on each other in the same frequency band. Source: Bednarek/Adobe Stock

When Elon Musk unveiled his vision for SpaceX’s Starlink, an ambitious global broadband service promising fast internet speeds and reliable connections, it sparked a flurry of excitement. However, new reports have emerged that 5G networks may render Starlink unusable — challenging Musk's much-hyped project and raising questions about its long-term viability.

But will 5G pose a real threat to the Starlink program or just a new challenge the technology will need to overcome?

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It’s all about the frequency

The battle between Starlink, a satellite internet service developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Dish Network’s 5G network is heating up over the 12 GHz frequency used by both services. In an announcement to customers, SpaceX declared that Dish Network's plans of utilizing the 12 GHz spectrum for its mobile service will cause disconnections for more than 75% of Starlink users.

The issue appears to be one of interference as both networks will utilize the same frequency band. According to a SpaceX-commissioned study submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Starlink user terminals would become inoperable if Dish's terrestrial network is granted access to the same frequency ranges. While some have questioned whether this prediction is accurate, the fact remains that Starlink requires a large amount of bandwidth in the spectrum to work properly.

The 12 GHz frequency band is particularly important for SpaceX because it supports high-speed broadband signals from its constellation of satellites. These are necessary for the company to be able to offer a competitive internet service. The satellite internet provider currently has 2,400 satellites in orbit and will launch thousands more in the coming years. This means that any interference on this frequency could significantly alter SpaceX’s ability to provide reliable services to customers and drastically reduce their coverage area.

While Dish Network has yet to comment on the issue, they have stated that they will consider all options as they strive to build a nationwide 5G network. All eyes are now on the FCC as they determine whether to grant Dish Network access to this valuable frequency. Until then, both companies will continue to fight for their respective rights. With billions of dollars on the line, it’s clear that it’s all about the frequency when it comes to Elon Musk’s Starlink and its potential ‘unusability’ under 5G.

[Learn about advanced beamforming and its impact on 5G.]

Why is 12 GHz important for 5G?

The 12 GHz band is an important frequency to consider when looking at 5G broadband communication. With the ability to provide higher data transmission rates compared to lower-frequency bands, it can become a key enabler for a variety of applications and services that depend on strong signal quality and high speeds. The 12 GHz band presents many advantages over its lower-frequency counterparts in terms of speed, range and throughput.

One of the main benefits of using the 12 GHz spectrum for 5G connectivity is its ability to provide greater industry competition. Due to its higher transmission rate, more companies can enter the market and compete with existing providers, as they can offer services that require a high-speed connection. This means that users have access to more options when selecting an internet provider, and prices are likely to become more competitive as well.

Another advantage of utilizing the 12 GHz band is faster and more efficient deployment. Deployment in this frequency requires fewer base stations than lower-frequency bands, making it suitable for rural areas where traditional infrastructure may be limited or not readily available. It also reduces the amount of time needed for network setup and configuration by providing better signal propagation over long distances and improved coverage even in obstructed environments.

The 12 GHz band also provides better signal propagation than lower frequencies, meaning that fewer base stations are required to cover a given area. Base station usage is reduced due to the higher frequency waveform characteristics of this spectrum — the waves can travel farther and more easily penetrate through obstructions such as walls or foliage. This allows for improved coverage and more reliable connections in urban environments where there is limited infrastructure available.

[Here's why 5G repeaters are being installed on streetlights.]

So, will Starlink be no more?

The debate over the 12 GHz band has been framed as a choice between 5G and the Starlink satellite system. However, it's important to note that the situation is much more complex than that. Whether or not Starlink will be affected by a move to open up the 12 GHz band for 5G use depends on several factors.

First, if the FCC does decide to open portions of the band for 5G deployment, stakeholders need to agree which parts of it can be used safely and without disrupting existing services. In this regard, there are two potential approaches: either allowing carriers access to a portion of the spectrum while creating guard bands (spaces) around existing users; or reserving certain chunks of frequency exclusively for current users.

Next, stakeholders must also consider the technical characteristics of 5G and Starlink when deciding where to draw the line between them. For example, 5G is designed to operate at higher power levels than Starlink satellites and this could potentially interfere with existing services if not managed properly. Furthermore, Starlink's broadband internet access relies on multiple LEO satellites communicating directly to provide service — something that could be disrupted by new 5G transmissions.

[Teardown: SpaceX Starlink Internet Kit]

Ultimately, only time will tell if the FCC can find a way to open the 12 GHz band for 5G use without compromising Starlink. Therefore, it is essential that all stakeholders approach this issue with care and respect each other's needs. Only then will we be able to ensure that both 5G and Starlink can coexist in harmony.

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