French Court Revokes Starlink Internet License

A French administrative court revoked Starlink’s Internet license, citing concerns that it could create a monopoly in one or more sectors of France’s economy.

French telecom regulator Arcep granted the license in February 2021. The court ruled that it had done so without the required public consultation.

Two French environmentalist groups backed the appeal to the highest administrative court, citing concerns about light pollution, space debris, and human health. Astronomers had previously complained that the thousands of Starlink satellites that SpaceX plans to launch could interfere with readings from ground-based telescopes by reflecting light from the sun.

The administrative court, however, ignored the environmentalists’ arguments when making its ruling, instead focusing on SpaceX’s business model. It launches satellites on its own rockets, manufactures both the satellites and the rockets in-house, and provides telecommunication services from the satellites it operates.

The administrative court’s ruling may hurt French residents who don’t have many good options for Internet access. This aspiring homesteader, who lives in the Pyrenees, says he previously got 2 Mbps download speed and 0.2 Mbps upload speed before he got Starlink. Starlink’s speeds keep improving with every successful launch of new satellites and is now comparable to “traditional” broadband.

Competing launch services in Europe include ArianeSpace, which manufactures rockets for launching payloads for customers based in Europe. It is best known for the Ariane 5 rocket, which can launch satellites into a geostationary orbit. It also coordinates the launch of Soyuz rockets from a spaceport in French Guinea, with the Russian Federal Space Agency listed as a prime supplier. ArianeSpace recently signed a contract with Amazon’s Project Kuiper to launch some of Project Kuiper’s Internet service satellites.

Competing satellite Internet service providers include OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and ViaSat, all of which have gotten into it with SpaceX before – usually in the form of filing regulatory challenges and court cases involving licenses that the FCC granted to SpaceX to launch Starlink satellites.

OneWeb previously claimed that a Starlink satellite nearly collided with a OneWeb satellite that was being launched (which SpaceX denied), but recently signed a contract with SpaceX to have some of its satellites launched on a Falcon 9 in the wake with recent diplomatic tensions with Russia. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said only that SpaceX would do right by OneWeb like it would for any other buyer of its launch services.

The administrative court’s ruling means that Arcep will have to revisit SpaceX’s licensing application. Arcep defended the decision it made in February 2021, saying, “[T]he 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.”

An anonymous source who is familiar with the matter says that Arcep will probably re-approve SpaceX’s application to operate Starlink in France, likely with additional conditions. The conditions will likely include not monopolizing near-Earth orbits or interfering with radio transmissions sent and received by other satellites.

Starlink currently has nearly 2,000 operational satellites out of a planned constellation of about 30,000. SpaceX recently brought Starlink out of the “Better than Nothing Beta” and is currently working on getting licensing in several countries, including India and (now) France. SpaceX previously floated the idea of adding telephone service to Starlink and a lower-cost plan for low-income customers. Now the Dogecoin Foundation has floated the idea of using Starlink’s radio capacity for offline Dogecoin transactions.