By Chuck Black
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released its proposed updates to the rules for non-geostationary-satellite orbit (NGSO) fixed-satellite service constellations and reasonably expects that the new rules will be adapted by majority vote at the next open FCC meeting, currently scheduled for September 26th, 2017.
But those updates, posted online as the September 7th, 2017 FCC Fact Sheet, “Updating Rules for Non-Geostationary-Satellite Orbit Fixed-Satellite Service Constellations; Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, IB Docket No. 16-408,” could mark a major defeat for Hawthorne, CA based SpaceX, which intends to launch several thousand satellites into orbit over the next several years.
On the other hand, those same rules could also signal opportunity for UK based OneWeb and Ottawa based Telesat, who are hoping to do much the same.
As outlined in the September 8th, 2017 Telecom, Media and Finance (TMF) Associates blog post, “Me first, no me…,” the key text on the geographic scope of the FCC’s in-line interference avoidance rule, that requires the spectrum to be shared equally between NGSO systems when their satellites are aligned with one another, marks “a major defeat for SpaceX,” because the FCC will need to defer to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an international body which uses a “first-come, first-served” coordination procedure and allows for non-US satellite systems operating outside the US to take precedence in some cases.
According to the FCC Fact Sheet:
While SpaceX argues that it (the FCC) should govern such operations worldwide, a grant of market access typically considers radio frequency operations only within the United States.
Sharing between systems of different administrations internationally is subject to coordination under Article 9 of the ITU Radio Regulations. We believe this international regime is the appropriate forum to consider NGSO FSS radio frequency operations that fall outside the scope of a grant of U.S. market access. Because ITU coordination procedures do not apply between two U.S. systems, our coordination trigger of ΔT/T of 6 percent will govern such operations both within and outside the United States.
In essence, since OneWeb is licensed by the UK and Telesat by Canada, and those nations have domestic priority over their airspace through the ITU, SpaceX will have to operate on a “non-interference basis” with respect to these systems outside of the US when it comes to deciding how to deal with any potential constellation interference.
If the competition launches first, they might even end up with priority, under the proposed rules. The FCC changes are also expected to benefit satellite networks backed by SES Networks’ O3b and Space Norway, whose constellations are not intended to provide all-US coverage.
Of course, SpaceX doesn’t like the plan.
According to the TMF post, the proposed ruling “represents a big problem for SpaceX, which needs to find another line of business outside of launch to justify its latest $21Bln US ($25.4Bln CDN) valuation.”
The ruling could even “force SpaceX to completely reconsider its strategic approach to its proposed Low Earth Orbit broadband constellation.”
As outlined in the September 11th, 2017 Teslarati post, “SpaceX’s internet satellite strategy faces possible setback after FCC decision,” SpaceX had specifically “requested that the FCC apply their non-interference rules for lower orbit communications satellites to internet constellations operating both inside and outside the physical United States,” and is quite disappointed that the FCC has decided not to do so.
Teslarati is the Tesla Motors blog, another firm controlled by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, so it presumably knows what it’s talking about.
On the other hand, as outlined in the September 8th, 2017 Space Intel Report post, “U.S. regulators propose to relax satellite constellation in-service, coverage rules,” there are a least a few FCC rule changes which are expected to assist the SpaceX program.
The lowering of the proposed in-service requirements to 50% of the proposed constellation within six years will benefit all satellite constellation operators, except perhaps OneWeb. The current rules require complete deployment within six years and OneWeb is on track to make this milestone.
Other proposed FCC changes also enjoy broad support.
As for Telesat, the TMF post claims that the company is sitting pretty and will “wait until next summer before deciding how to move forward, presumably expecting to have a wide variety of suitors once its ITU priority status is recognized.”
OneWeb also has a Canadian connection. As outlined in the May 3rd, 2016 post, “OneWeb Goes to Gatineau,” the company has partnered by Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) and applied to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to provide broadband access to remote Canadian communities, using its satellite network.
As for TMF, the company is, at least according to it’s website, a “consulting and research firm based in Menlo Park, CA. We focus on business planning, technical analysis, financial and spectrum valuations and expert witness services in the satellite and telecom sectors and have particular expertise in mobile satellite services (MSS), where we have worked for almost all of the leading operators over the last decade.“
As the old saying goes, sometimes it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard.
Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.