PARIS — International regulators are weighing whether to tighten rules that permit owners of large satellite constellations to launch a single spacecraft to meet their in-service deadline, a policy seen as allowing an operator to block the use valuable radio spectrum for years without deploying its fleet.
Satellite fleet operator SES, which is taking an active role in the regulatory debate, has proposed to regulators a compromise that recognizes the unique nature of large constellations while also enforcing much stricter requirements.
SES’s proposal, which falls between current international rules and those proposed by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was presented Sept. 1 to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference in Bangkok on spectrum management.
The issue is of direct relevance to large constellations being proposed by SpaceX, Boeing and possible others that want the FCC to relax its requirements as the U.S. regulator weighs license applications for at least 10 constellations in addition to the already licensed OneWeb.
The FCC is asking constellations in non-geostationary orbit to field their entire fleets within six years of receiving their FCC licenses. SpaceX and Boeing have asked the FCC to adopt a more-flexible requirement, saying that the realities of the satellite production and launch industry make it all but impossible to launch huge numbers of satellites within six years.
SpaceX has said it could launch 1,600 satellites, each expected to weigh 386 kilograms, in the six-year period — more than sufficient to prove its seriousness, the company told the FCC. Boeing has also asked for a waiver of the six-year deadline:
The ITU, which is the UN affiliate that manages wireless spectrum and orbital slots, tried to resolve the issue at its 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), but was unable to reach a decision.
In the run-up to WRC-19, the ITU is giving itself and its member governments more time to come up with a stricter threshold for what the ITU calls its “bringing into use” rule.
The 2019 WRC is expected to take a fresh look at the issue based on recommendations from a group called Working Party 4A.
The ITU requirement now for constellations in non-geostationary orbit is to launch at least one satellite within seven years of its formal filing with the ITU. The satellite must occupy one of the orbital planes intended for the constellation, and spend at least 90 days broadcasting in the licensed spectrum.
The constellation’s national regulator then informs the ITU within 30 days, and the entire constellation is deemed to have been brought into use under ITU rules.
Several companies proposing large constellations, including Telesat and SpaceX, have said openly that they intend to launch a small number of initial spacecraft well before the full constellation.
Proof of concept of a new satellite design is one reason for this. The ITU rule is another.
SES’s proposal, outlined by Ting Ling Lee, SES’s spectrum management and development manager for the Asia-Pacific, would oblige operators to launch at least 1% of their constellations within seven years of their first ITU notification, with a minimum of 20% launched two years later.
By the final deadline three years later — or 12 years after the license application to the ITU — the operator would need to have launched 75% of the total network. The remaining 25% would have no deadline attached.
SES operates a fleet of 50-plus satellites in geostationary orbit, plus 12 — with more to come — in medium-Earth orbit as part of SES Networks, formerly known as O3b Networks. SES has filed with the FCC a request for a considerable enlargement of the O3b constellation to extend its coverage beyond the current equatorial footprint.
Telesat said it would have no public comment on the ITU debate. Fleet operator Eutelsat, which has no non-geostationary constellation planned, also declined to comment.
Greg Wyler, chairman of OneWeb, a constellation of at least 800 satellites in low Earth orbit, has said he would have no objection to a much stricter deadline regime at the ITU. OneWeb has scheduled the launch of 10 demonstration satellites in mid-2018, with the rest of the network to be in orbit by 2020, mainly through 21 launches of Russian Soyuz rockets, contracted through Arianespace.
OneWeb has also contracted launched with Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne and Blue Origin’s New Glenn vehicles.