Amazon slams SpaceX, tells FCC that Musk-led companies are rule-breakers


Bitter rivals —

SpaceX insults competitors and acts like “rules are for other people,” Amazon says.

Jon Brodkin

Illustration of many satellites orbiting the Earth.

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of low Earth-orbit satellites like those launched by SpaceX and OneWeb.

In the ongoing battle between the two companies, Amazon fired back at SpaceX today at the Federal Communications Commission, claiming that the Starlink operator refuses to obey the rules and that it launches unjustified attacks on anyone who points out SpaceX’s rule-breaking.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or re-opening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Amazon told the FCC.

Two weeks ago, Amazon urged the FCC to reject SpaceX’s proposal for the next-generation version of Starlink that could include up to 30,000 broadband satellites. Amazon claims that SpaceX violated a rule against incomplete and inconsistent applications by submitting plans for “two mutually exclusive configurations” with “very different orbital parameters.” SpaceX says it is pitching two possible configurations in case its preferred setup doesn’t work out and says this does not violate the FCC rule. SpaceX also told the FCC that Amazon frequently tries to hinder competitors to “compensate for Amazon’s failure to make progress of its own.”

The FCC rule in question doesn’t specifically prohibit SpaceX’s approach but says that an application will be rejected if it “is defective with respect to completeness of answers to questions, informational showings, internal inconsistencies, execution, or other matters of a formal character.”

Amazon sighs

In today’s filing, Amazon said it is making its response to SpaceX and its CEO Elon Musk “with a sigh.”

“Try to hold a Musk-led company to flight rules? You’re ‘fundamentally broken.’ Try to hold a Musk-led company to health and safety rules? You’re ‘unelected & ignorant.’ Try to hold a Musk-led company to US securities laws? You’ll be called many names, some too crude to repeat,” Amazon wrote.

Amazon said SpaceX frequently lobs the accusation of being “anticompetitive” at “any private company that dares point out its flouting of laws and regulations.” Amazon cited several other proceedings, including one in which satellite operator Viasat sued the FCC and asked judges for a stay that would halt the FCC-approved Starlink launches. US appeals-court judges rejected Viasat’s request.

“Before the FCC, SpaceX’s accusations of anticompetitive behavior have become a tell, signifying only its discomfort in the face of reasonable argument. When Viasat raised environmental concerns in response to SpaceX’s Mod3 [a recent modification of SpaceX’s satellite system], SpaceX decried the argument as a ‘blatantly anti-competitive… attack by a party that will stop at nothing to delay the only operational [low Earth-orbit satellite] system offering consumer service.’ SpaceX’s CEO echoed these sentiments in a tweet,” Amazon wrote. “When Amazon sought to have SpaceX’s substantial redesign of its constellation placed in the processing round during which SpaceX’s modification application was filed, SpaceX asserted that Amazon was ‘laser focused on changing rules to harm competitors.’… When Amazon petitioned the commission for a rulemaking to update its rules governing the modification of station licenses—it was merely an attempt to ‘hobble Amazon’s competitors by effectively freezing innovation.'”

SpaceX, meanwhile, “works tirelessly to ensure that everyone else plays by the rules that it itself rebuffs,” as it urged the FCC to reject a petition “to permit two-way mobile use in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band” and “routinely raises concerns with respect to its competitors’ currently filed plans, including with respect to interference,” Amazon said.

Amazon plans to launch satellite-broadband service through its Kuiper Systems subsidiary but has said it won’t launch any satellites until at least 2023. SpaceX is providing beta service to over 100,000 customers from more than 1,700 satellites.

“SpaceX clandestinely redesigned” satellites, Amazon says

Amazon further cited a case in which “SES, Amazon, and OneWeb identified that SpaceX clandestinely redesigned and launched its satellite antennas in a manner that violated the scope of its existing authorization” by using both parabolic and phased-array antennas without telling the FCC about the parabolic antennas.

“Faced with incontrovertible evidence and strong argument, SpaceX did what it always does: ignored the issue for as long as possible, and accused those that raised it of ‘obvious delay tactics… designed to waste commission resources and slow delivery of high-quality broadband to otherwise unserved Americans,” Amazon wrote. The FCC has not yet resolved this issue, Amazon wrote in a footnote.

In the current instance, “SpaceX’s primary argument here is that Amazon identifying a rule violation is merely an anticompetitive attempt to hinder its progress,” Amazon wrote, continuing:

SpaceX repeating this argument again and again—in its ex parte letter and on Twitter—has not made it true. And like all ad hominem attacks, it ignores the actual argument. As Amazon’s letter made clear, the purpose of enforcing the commission’s longstanding rule that applicants settle on an orbital configuration before applying is to preserve the fairness and efficiency of the FCC’s licensing process. We are aware of no instance—nor does SpaceX cite any—in which the commission has permitted a filing that asked the commission to consider multiple, mutually exclusive applications. Notwithstanding SpaceX’s arguments that the rules simply shouldn’t apply to it, the FCC could not abandon this rule for SpaceX alone.

Amazon: SpaceX wants “administrative snarl”

Amazon argued that SpaceX’s multiple-configuration approach forces the FCC and competitors to do extra analysis work and, if approved by the FCC, would encourage even more unwieldy applications:

Abandoning the rule for all would open the floodgates for applicants to apply for two, three, four—or more—separate, mutually exclusive configurations. Whatever effort SpaceX or others might spare themselves with this approach would multiply and land on the shoulders of the commission and other interested parties. SpaceX itself notes that Mod3 attracted “nearly 200 pleadings.” These commenters are not mere obstructionists. They include other [satellite] operators seeking to ensure that SpaceX’s thousands of satellites do not collide or interfere with their own constellations, scientists concerned about the impact on their fields of study, and other operators seeking to protect their own investments and businesses.

SpaceX argued that its approach, while unusual in the US, is common in filings to the International Telecommunication Union. “Amazon makes the odd argument that the application is incomplete because it provides too much information,” SpaceX told the FCC last week.

Amazon claimed today that SpaceX is urging the FCC to create an “administrative snarl” that would become a “bottleneck for all potential competitors applying for licenses.”

“For existing and prospective licensees seeking to authorize new services, multiplying the commission’s burden in processing applications could dramatically extend this already lengthy process. In other words, Amazon’s argument protects competition by keeping the door open for prospective licensees, while SpaceX’s position would close it,” Amazon said.

Amazon concluded, “If SpaceX and Musk continue to hold themselves above the rules, they should buckle up: they will only draw further protest from Amazon and others who want to see rules applied to everyone equally. Musk and SpaceX will likely continue to respond as they have here, and the chaotic and resource draining cycle will continue. Amazon asks that the commission show SpaceX that the rules apply to it as well.”

We contacted SpaceX about Amazon’s filing today and will update this article if we get a response.

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