Our story begins with something Musk tweeted in response to a journalist’s report on the legal battle between SpaceX and Amazon over efforts to build and launch satellites providing broadband Internet connectivity.
- In 2019, Amazon announced its plans to get into the Internet satellite business via its subsidiary, Kuiper Systems LLC, and asked the Federal Communications Commission to let it operate within a frequency spectrum set aside for this kind of purpose.
- However, the FCC had already given out licenses for that spectrum many years before, to companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and others players. SpaceX and the others objected to Amazon’s request. Thus began a complicated legal and regulatory fight before the FCC that continues today.
- Meanwhile, SpaceX reports it now has nearly 1,700 operating satellites launched and 100,000 customers, and OneWeb reportedly has about 200 satellites currently orbiting. Amazon has yet to launch any.
All of which brings us to the three most recent FCC filings in this ongoing battle, which in turn prompted Musk’s tweet:
- On August 19, SpaceX filed its plan to move on to the next generation of its satellites, which would reach 30,000 satellites in total.
- August 25, Amazon asked the FCC to dismiss SpaceX’s new plan.
- Then, this week, SpaceX filed a response that complained, among other things, about how many objections Amazon has filed against SpaceX. As its counsel wrote:
“Amazon’s recent missive is unfortunately only the latest in its continuing efforts to slow down competition … while neglecting to resolve the Commission’s concerns about Amazon’s own non-geostationary orbit (‘NGSO’) satellite system.
While Amazon has waited 15 months to explain how its system works, it has lodged objections to SpaceX on average about every 16 days this year.”
With that, we reach Musk’s tweet, which came in response to a report by Michael Sheetz, who covers space for CNBC:
“Filing legal actions against SpaceX is *actually* his full-time job.”
I laughed out loud for a second when I read this. Even though Jeff Bezos is only referred to once in the FCC legal documents that I can find (and not even by name), we all know who Musk has to be referring to here. Right? At least I think so.
And it’s amusing to watch sometimes as Musk trolls Bezos on Twitter. He really seems to enjoy it. However, I think there’s also a brutal, messy, ugly truth contained within the tweet.
Assuming this is a very thinly-veiled dig at Bezos, we all know that Bezos’s full-time job is not really to use the legal system to advocate for Kuiper, and often against SpaceX. (He’s busy these days riding rockets, and executive-chairmaning.)
But, it is somebody’s job.
Whose job? Well, within its recent filing, SpaceX says Amazon “routinely brings as many as six lobbyists and lawyers to its many meetings with the Commission about SpaceX.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, who signed the latest filing, is an accomplished lawyer who previously worked as a senior advisor to the former FCC chairman and in Congress.
And that, I venture to say — even though most people don’t like to admit it — that this is exactly how our system is designed to work. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing, all things considered.
Because, we’re talking about the launching of many thousands of commercial satellites — an unprecedented scale — along with the groundbreaking use of frequency spectrum. It’s difficult even to think through the second and third-order effects, along with the size of the opportunity.
So, even people who want less government overall might agree that in this case, it probably makes sense to have a strong regulatory framework in place.
Granted, it can be messy, delaying, annoying, and frustrating. But what’s the alternative?
At the extreme, it would be a complete free-for-all, in which any company could interfere with any other company, and which paradoxically might discourage the best companies from competing in the first place.
Long-time readers will know that I am eager for SpaceX, or OneWeb, or Amazon, or some other company–I’m truly agnostic as to which one–to achieve the goal of bringing high-speed broadband Internet access to the most remote places.
I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of broadband access can hold rural areas back in the 21st century. So, I think I understand the urgency.
Now, I don’t necessarily think Musk was trying to make all these points about the regulatory state and the legal system and innovation. I think he’s more likely just taking the opportunity to roast Bezos again.
But he’s nevertheless revealed something important.
Since the time of Shakespeare, people have complained about lawyers. Heck, I complain about them, and I’m a non-practicing lawyer myself.
Still, when it comes to complicated business endeavors, there’s an advantage to having a robust, complicated legal system. To paraphrase another great and bold thinker of an earlier time, it might just be the worst possible system, except for all those others that have ever been tried.
Regardless, it’s the system we live under. And when you’re caught up in it, no matter what kind of business you’re running, you’ll be glad that somebody’s “actual full-time job” is to be your zealous advocate.