Viasat says Elon Musk criticized an executive ‘not involved’ in the company’s FCC petition against Starlink

Elon Musk SpaceX Tesla CEO holds hand to face thinking
Elon Musk, the founder, CEO, and chief designer of SpaceX.
  • SpaceX is making an unprecedented push to deploy network of nearly 12,000 internet-beaming Starlink satellites by mid-2027.
  • Traditional satellite-internet companies like Viasat have opposed aspects of such projects with the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates them.
  • Viasat recently triggered the ire of Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder, by petitioning the FCC to perform a potentially costly and lengthy environmental review of Starlink.
  • Musk tweeted that Viasat was trying to protect its profits, accusing Charlie Ergen — the founder and chair of EchoStar and Dish Network, two different satellite companies — of "sneaky moves."
  • Viasat told Business Insider that Ergen was "not involved" in its recent FCC petition and that "SpaceX's continued failure to respond on the merits speaks volumes."
  • SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

On Tuesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk lashed out against a sharp criticism of Starlink - SpaceX's planned fleet of nearly 12,000 internet-beaming satellites - filed by rival company Viasat to the Federal Communications Commission last week.

"Starlink 'poses a hazard' to Viasat's profits, more like it," Musk tweeted, since Starlink could gobble up Viasat's customer base as SpaceX's internet service expands. "Stop the sneaky moves, Charlie Ergen!"

But Viasat said Ergen, the telecom industry figure Musk called out, was "not involved" in its recent and potentially consequential critique.

SpaceX and Viasat have long tussled in public filings over forthcoming decisions from the FCC, which governs the launch and operations of commercial satellites. But Viasat apparently riled up Musk enough for a public response.

In the new petition, filed December 22, Viasat asked the FCC to study the potential impacts of Starlink through processes established by the National Environmental Policy Act. Specifically, Viasat cited SpaceX's own filings, FCC policy, third-party studies, and news stories to claim its competitor treats satellites as "disposable commodities with little regard for the harmful environmental impacts they may have" and that Starlink poses "an unreasonable threat" to the space environment in which other spacecraft must coexist.

Satellites currently have a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act, but the law provides a means for "an interested person" - including a company - to press a federal agency to explore an environmental assessment. Such an action could pause SpaceX's roughly biweekly launch of satellites for months, and it may lead to a follow-on environmental impact statement - a procedure that can take years to complete

"The Commission cannot take SpaceX's word for it that the thousands of satellites it is seeking to pack into a lower orbit will not materially increase the risks of collisions and produce excessive space debris - especially because SpaceX knows that when its satellites do collide with other space objects and fragment or fail, it can always launch more," Viasat's lawyers said.

Musk is intimately familiar with the toll of environmental reviews, especially given SpaceX's recent bout with one for its Starship rocket system in Texas. Thus, the tech mogul weighed in with the Ergen tweet after SpaceNews shared its story about Viasat arguing Starlink "poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth."

Viasat, Dish Network: 'Charlie Ergen is not involved'

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An animation of SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation providing internet coverage to the Americas.

Ergen is the billionaire cofounder of EchoStar and Dish Network, but has no holdings with Viasat, according to Securities Exchange Commission database entries. Additionally, a Viasat spokesperson told Insider in an email that Ergen "is not involved in Viasat's FCC filings."

Viasat has offered its data services in a bundle with Dish's satellite-TV service since 2012. But a spokesperson for Dish offered a similar statement to Viasat's on the matter, adding she was puzzled by Musk's comment. 

Musk's ire may stem from Dish's support for another contentious yet independent matter within the FCC: a new draft proposal to share a small but significant slice of the radio spectrum that SpaceX plans to use for Starlink. The FCC is exploring using those frequencies, in what's called the 12 GHz band, to expand 5G wireless broadband services on the ground.

The non-profit Public Knowledge, which advocates for "access to affordable communications tools," argued Tuesday that such a move could be done while protecting satellite constellations such as Starlink "from harmful interference."

Nevertheless, SpaceX has vociferously fought the proposal, claiming it'd be unbalancing and "harm existing satellite broadband and satellite television users" in a December 28 notice with the FCC. Musk himself joined lawyers on conference calls to lobby the matter directly with four commissioners, according to the document.

Despite the apparent disconnect between Viasat and Ergen, Musk doubled down on linking the billionaire to the company on Tuesday evening by also a lumping Viasat executive chairman Mark Dankberg into his accusation of "sneaky moves" against Starlink.

"This action is wack, not dank!!" Musk said in a follow-up tweet.

Viasat, for its part, reiterated its critiques of SpaceX's approach with Starlink by referencing a December 21 notice of meetings held with FCC staff. 

"Viasat, alongside a number of independent third-parties, noted in Viasat's ex parte filing from 12/21/20, have identified issues that the FCC must address to ensure the responsible use of space from an environmental perspective. SpaceX's continued failure to respond on the merits speaks volumes," a spokesperson told Insider in an email.

Spokespeople for SpaceX did not acknowledge Insider's request for comment.

This story has been updated with new information.

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