Viasat has asked the FCC to stay the “effectiveness” of a recent order granting SpaceX’s application to modify plans for its LEO satellite broadband constellation. According to Viasat, the FCC violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to assess the environmental impact of deploying thousands of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites and having those satellites eventually disintegrate into the atmosphere.
If the stay is not granted, Viasat plans a lawsuit seeking a stay from the D.C. Circuit, arguing in its FCC filing that the D.C. Circuit is likely to grant the stay.
Viasat, which operates geostationary broadband satellites, argues in its filing that SpaceX will cause immediate and irreparable harm to Viasat and the public at large. SpaceX’s Starlink service could pose a disruptive competitive threat to ViaSat’s satellite broadband service.
SpaceX’s LEO approach requires thousands of satellites—way more than Viasat and other geostationary satellite providers require — and according to Viasat, that poses a threat of catastrophic collisions. The debris from such a collision would endanger other SpaceX satellites – and potentially those of Viasat, which has a pending application for a non-geostationary satellite deployment.
SpaceX satellites are designed to eventually disintegrate into the atmosphere, and according to Viasat, as the satellites disintegrate, they will leave behind millions of pounds of metallic compounds that could increase global warming. In addition, while in space, SpaceX satellites will reflect sunlight, which Viasat says will increase light pollution and alter the night sky.
Viasat previously made some of these same arguments with the FCC but according to Viasat, the FCC largely dismissed those concerns, saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence of serious threats.
In dismissing Viasat’s concerns, the FCC violated NEPA requirements, Viasat says.
“In light of evidence from leading researchers suggesting that very large numbers of satellite reentries may have significant environmental effects, the proper response for the commission was to conduct an assessment – not to demand certainty from Viasat,” the filing argues.
The FCC’s approval of SpaceX’s request to make certain modifications to its LEO satellite plans last month apparently offered Viasat another opportunity to raise its concerns.
Viasat SpaceX Concerns
A stay is in the public interest and will not substantially injure SpaceX, Viasat argues.
“A mere delay in SpaceX’s ability to expand its commercial operations does not overcome the significant harm that Viasat and the public will face by allowing that expansion to proceed without adequate environmental review,” the filing argues.
A delay could make it more difficult for SpaceX to meet deadlines for providing service to rural areas of the U.S. in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program, however.
SpaceX had one of the largest winning bids in the auction, which awarded funding to cover some of the costs of providing broadband service in unserved rural areas. The company is poised to receive $885.5 million in RDOF funding, pending approval of its long-form application by the FCC.
A range of parties have challenged SpaceX’s win, raising questions about the whether the company will have sufficient capacity to meet its RDOF commitments and other concerns.
In the new filing about SpaceX, Viasat asks the FCC to rule on its request by June 1, which is less than a week away. If the FCC does not make a ruling by that date, Viasat “will deem the request denied,” the filing states.
SpaceX did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the Viasat filing.