SpaceX’s Starlink has a license in the United States. The rest of the world will be more complicated. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — Aspiring operators of constellations providing broadband data, OneWeb and Telesat, said they admired prospective competitor Amazon as a company but that Amazon would need to play by the same spectrum-reservation rules as everyone else.

Amazon’s proposed constellation of low-orbiting satellites was one of the recurring topics at the Satellite 2019 conference here May 6-9.

Amazon has said little about its intentions and it is unclear what spectrum it plans to use and what coordination efforts it will have to complete with operators ahead of Amazon on the frequency-registration list at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Unlike aspiring constellation operators OneWeb, Telesat, SpaceX and LeoSat, the funding question never comes up with Amazon. If its chief executive, Jeff Bezos, decides he’s all in on a LEO constellation play, it’s not cash that will be the roadblock.

Access to radio frequency is another matter. Here too, officials said that if Bezos threw enough cash at the frequency problem, he probably could solve it. But even the world’s richest man cannot easily reorder the priority list at the ITU, which is set by application date and milestone deadlines.

Michael Schwartz, senior vice president at Telesat, said his career history includes terrestrial wireless as well as satellite. Frequency access is of huge importance in both.

“If this were a terrestrial mobile conference, and someone said: ‘I am going to build a network, I have no spectrum rights but don’t worry about that, I’ll build the network and I’ll figure that out,’ they wouldn’t be listened to,” Schwartz said.

“I am not sure why, but people in the satellite industry don’t pay enough attention to the need for spectrum rights and how ITU priority works. It’s hard to build a network when you don’t have authorization to do so.”

Spectrum rights is also an issue that comes up frequently with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, for which 60 satellites were successfully launched on May 23. SpaceX has changed part of its orbital architecture to lower the orbit from 1,200 kilometers to 550 kilometers.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) accepted that and authorized the May 23 launch, but the ITU has yet to weigh in.

“I have as much respect as anybody for Jeff Bezos and [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk, but at the end of the day, the rules that govern access to spectrum will apply to hem as it applies to other companies — and my company,” Schwartz said.

OneWeb Chief Financial Officer Thomas Whayne agreed.

“The spectrum is a real uncertainty, because there was no specificity around that,” Whayne said of the Amazon project. “I know Amazon can fund this, and fund it with their principal shareholder. So at some point, if they are serious about it, they will find the spectrum and find the money.

“The reality with Amazon is that everything they do is best-in-class, whether it’s e-commerce or web services. I do think they’ll figure it out. It will take a bit of time. One of the important advantages we have is that we will be in the market years before they will. We and our shareholders never thought we would be alone.”

After the ITU license, a struggle for landing rights, one nation at a time

In addition to navigating the ITU process and the spectrum negotiation with other LEO-orbit constellations, Amazon and he other constellations will need landing rights, nation by nation.

Whayne said OneWeb, which has launched its first six satellites to preserve its ITU reservation and plans regular launches starting late this year, is “working on it [landing rights] very actively. We have made a lot of progress and will make more in the coming months. But we fully expect we will provide global coverage.”

OneWeb, which is registered in the United Kingdom, made an early Ku-band filing with the ITU and believes all other Ku-band constellations will need to assure non-interference with the OneWeb system, just as OneWeb and the other LEOs will need to assure non-interference with Ku-band transmissions from geostationary-orbit satellites.

“We have priority spectrum in Ku,” Whayne said. “The coordination issue is not ours. We do have some coordination issues in Ka-band [for communications with OneWeb gateway Earth stations]. Ku-band is the more important because that is where the potential interference is.”

Other satellite operators, such as mobile satellite service providers Iridium and Inmarsat, have spent years getting access to nations whose markets are important to them. Broadband hardware and service provider Hughes Network Systems has spent years trying to establish a satellite consumer-broadband service in India and is still waiting.

There is every reason to expect that a two-way broadband data service will have at least as much trouble getting full access to markets such as India and China.

Schwartz said initial indications are that the Amazon project will target a mass consumer audience, unlike the Telesat LEO program, which is going after maritime, aeronautical, cellular backhaul and government markets.

That market focus means Telesat is less concerned than SpaceX or OneWeb or perhaps Amazon with a breakthrough in flat-panel antenna technology that brings down prices to within the reach of a mass consumer market.

“We look at cost as the total cost of ownership — the cost per megabit amortized,” Schwartz said. “Broadband to enterprise means [customer premises antenna retail price] doesn’t have to be in the hundreds [of dollars]. We certainly look forward to improvements, but it doesn’t have to be a super-low cost.”

One unknown hanging over all the LEO constellations is what milestone-deployment requirements will be imposed by the ITU at its World Radiocommunication Conference, WRC-19, scheduled for Oct. 28- Nov. 22 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

WRC-19 is expected to produce its own set of milestones to encourage constellation operators not to sit on their spectrum, on penalty of losing their licenses.

It is also unclear when the WRC-19 will start the countdown clock. Early indications are that it would start sometime in October or November, during WRC-19.

“There are a half-dozen proposals on the table,” said Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO. “All of them are structured about the same. The fraction of satellites you need to have at each milestone is the open question, and then of course: When does the clock start? I am optimistic that we can meet either set of milestones.”

Telesat LEO is registered in Canada. SpaceX’s Starlink is registered in Norway and the United States. LeoSat is registered in France.