The highest administrative court in France revoked SpaceX's license to provide internet services in the country via its Starlink megaconstellation, citing monopolization concerns due to the size and scale of the company's operations.
France's telecom regulator, Arcep, awarded SpaceX the license in February 2021 without first conducting a public consultation, the court determined.
The court appeal was led by two environmental organizations that cited possible impacts of the megaconstellation on the environment, including light pollution, space debris and also human health.
The court, however, based its decision to revoke the license mostly on the argument that the nature of SpaceX's business — which includes rocket and satellite manufacturing, launch services, satellite operations and telecommunication services — could distort the market and squeeze out competition, which, in the end, would negatively affect French consumers.
"This project could even disrupt the economic balance of other sectors because of SpaceX's vertical integration strategy," the court's public rapporteur said in a report on April 5. "By manufacturing its own satellites, the launchers to put them into orbit, piloting the constellation and marketing its own telecommunications services, Starlink is competing with satellite manufacturers, [European launch provider] Arianespace, radio network equipment manufacturers and telephone operators."
Arcep will have to comply with the court's decision and reconsider SpaceX's application. The regulator has now invited the public to submit their objections by May 9.
In a statement released on April 8, Arcep defended its previous decision, claiming that Starlink's operations would not have a "significant impact on the market nor affect end users' interests."
"The frequency band in question indeed enables the cohabitation of multiple satellite industry players, and does therefore not create a situation of spectrum scarcity," Arcep said in the statement. "Moreover, the day the authorization was awarded, other satellite superfast broadband plans were already available, whose users number in the tens of thousands, amongst the more than 17 million superfast broadband subscribers in France."
SpaceX currently operates about 2,000 satellites of a planned first-generation Starlink constellation of 12,000 spacecraft that orbit roughly 340 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth. Ultimately, the company wants to fly many more Starlink satellites — up to 42,000 or them. SpaceX, however, is not the only player in the fast-growing low-Earth-orbit internet provision business. OneWeb plans a constellation of about 650 satellites, more than half of which are already in orbit. Amazon-owned Kuiper Systems has plans for a constellation of over 3,000 satellites.
Traditional players, such as American firm Viasat or Switzerland-headquartered SES, use geostationary satellites that sit above a fixed spot on Earth at a distance of 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) to provide internet services to remote areas. Many of these companies oppose SpaceX's plans.
A source familiar with the Starlink license appeal who didn't wish to be named told Space.com that Arcep is probably going to award the license again but may attach additional conditions compared to the original agreement.
"There might be more conditionality attached to the [new] license about putting the burden of proof on Starlink to show that the size of the constellation does not mean they're going to burn all orbital positions and create problems with frequency interference," the source said. "It could also be a more provisional rather than an open-ended license."
The French decision, the source said, might affect Starlink's future in neighboring Germany, where SpaceX received a provisional one-year license in December 2020, which was later extended while a new government was being formed.
"I think the French ruling could have an impact also on how Germany is going to look at it," the source said.
Since the launch of the first batch of Starlink satellites in May 2019, astronomers have warned that the low-orbiting spacecraft will cause disruption to astronomy that could be possibly worse than light pollution. Space safety experts have warned that due to the sheer amount of satellites, the risk of collisions in the orbits around Earth will increase. Atmospheric scientists cautioned that the vast amount of metal that will be burning in the atmosphere as SpaceX regularly replenishes its constellation and deorbits old spacecraft could cause dangerous changes to the planet's climate.
The project, however, has recently won more positive press for its contribution to keeping worn-torn Ukraine connected.
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