The ITU's Yvon Henri said the agency would closely examine any mega-constellation of satellites that attempts to claims to have brought its service into use by launching only a couple of cubesats. Credit: ITU The ITU’s Yvon Henri said the agency would closely examine any mega-constellation of satellites that attempts to claims to have brought its service into use by launching only a couple of cubesats. Credit: ITU


WASHINGTON — The U.S. and international agencies responsible for satellite orbital slot and frequency allocations said they may need to adapt their licensing procedures given the flood of proposals for mega-constellations for broadband internet delivery.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) sit at opposite ends of the scale in terms of satellite network approval.

The FCC asks system owners to post a bond, which is then reimbursed as the satellites are built and launched. The bond is fully released, and the operating license approved, only when the entire network is in service.

The ITU is charged only with maintaining a registry of satellite networks, whose priority is assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. The ITU allows satellite systems to declare they are operational even if only one of the constellation’s satellites have been launched.

FCC reviewing its no-license-until-full-deployment policy

“The right number is clearly in between” the FCC and ITU extremes, FCC Satellite Division Chief Jose Albuquerque said here March 8 at the Satellite 2017 conference. “We are thinking about a regulation that you would have to have a certain number in orbit after six years.”

The FCC has received proposals for 19 satellite constellations using Ku-, Ka-, C- and V-band frequencies. Twelve of these are related to a licensing round that was triggered by global satellite internet startup OneWeb, registered in the United Kingdom, which is building a constellation of around 800 low-orbiting satellites using Ku- and Ka-band for broadband internet delivery.

Jose Albuquerque. Credit: Intelsat Jose Albuquerque. Credit: Intelsat

Eleven other systems sent similar proposals to the FCC by last November’s deadline. A second procedure followed Boeing Co.’s proposal for a constellation of satellites using V-band. Seven other applications followed.

Yvon Henri, chief of the satellite services department of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, said the agency has received several dozen proposals, including Boeing’s V-band and “others that have popped up recently.”

Two of the constellation proposals viewed as among the most credible given their backers — Telesat Canada’s and SpaceX’s — have openly stated their intention of launching a couple of very small satellites as technology demonstrators. These satellites would also serve to satisfy the ITU’s “bringing into use” requirement.

ITU may have to accept ‘jungle’ but doesn’t have to like it

Henri said this was unacceptable.

“What I am concerned about is that some administrations [ITU filings are made through governments, not directly by corporate sponsors] will declare constellations brought into use with a cubist — not even a satellite from its constellation,” Henri said.

“I would not like to see a cubesat used to bring into use any of these mega-constellations. I will look at it very carefully to make sure these cubesats respect whatever parameters are in the filing.”

On multiple occasions in his ITU career Henri’s office has confronted the limits of the ITU’s power in an attempt to make orbital slot and frequency allocation more rule-based environment.

He agreed that given the way to rules are written now, just one cubesat may be all that’s needed for a mega constellation to reserve its spectrum under ITU rules.

“If I have to accept it, I will do so,” Henri said. “But I will say:  ‘Please, this is not for me or for the regulations, it’s for the community. If one of you abuses the rules, another will do it. And at the end of the day — well, if you want a jungle, go with it.”

Albuquerque said that even in geostationary orbit, where things ought to be easier to organize, “you have not completely solved the problem of administrations that register networks and don’t have anything at the [orbital] location.

“I fully agree that this should not happen,” Albuquerque said. “But I am not sure that you have the regulatory tools to prevent it in all cases.”

OneWeb first in line at FCC but no special priority

Albuquerque said FCC approval of the OneWeb constellation “could be granted fairly soon,” but that OneWeb has no special advantage over the 11 other filings that came after it.

He said the FCC expected to send to the 11 more-recent filings under the OneWeb procedure a request for supplementary information on their proposals in a matter of days, just as it did with OneWeb.

“All the applications in the processing round — OneWeb plus the 11 others — have equal status,” Albuquerque said. “The fact that OneWeb was first doesn’t give it any priority. But most likely action on OneWeb will happen before the others.”

He said OneWeb’s intended merger with established GEO satellite fleet operator Intelsat likely would not have any measurable effect on the FCC’s consideration of OneWeb.

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding

Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes

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