One of the key elements in U.S. regulators’ consideration of the multiple proposals for non-geostationary satellite constellations is how to mitigate the threat of interference between these systems and those in geostationary orbit; and among the non-GEO operators. In this graphic, SpaceX purports to show how operator sharing of satellite-beam data can reduce “in-line events” of interference with a ViaSat network. Credit: SpaceX

PARIS — U.S. regulators propose to relax requirements for satellite constellations in non-geostationary orbit to give them more time to deploy their systems, and to permit networks that focus on specific geographic areas and do not cover all U.S. territory.

But they remain undecided about how to accommodate high-altitude platforms

The proposals, which the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced Sept. 7, will be discussed on Sept. 26 at the agency’s open meeting.

They are particularly good news for the larger constellation, such as proposed by SpaceX, which had chafed at the FCC’s current deployment milestones.

The new proposals also benefit networks backed by SES Networks’ O3b and Space Norway, whose constellations are not intended to provide all-U.S. coverage.

The FCC’s Sept. 7 proposal is part of the agency’s long debate over how to license the multiple non geostationary satellite constellation projects awaiting U.S. licenses. The FCC has already licensed OneWeb’s 720-satellite system.

The FCC has been trying to make non-GEO systems confirm to the same basic principles that are imposed on large geostationary satellites. The agency’s current rules are that you must launch your entire network within six years of receiving an FCC license or forfeit your license and your $5 million bond.

But it has become apparent that some regulations governing a single 6,000-kilogram telecommunications satellite are ill-suited to a constellation of hundreds, or even thousands, of satellites.

The FCC had proposed that constellation operators accept a deadline of launching 75% of their systems within six years, with the rest of the network due in orbit three years later.

Those that failed to meet the deadlines would not forfeit their license but would not be able to launch further satellites under the license.

SES, a large operator of geostationary satellites that owns the O3b Networks — since rebranded SES Networks — constellation in medium-altitude equatorial orbit, proposed a multi-milestone process to the FCC and to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency that regulates spectrum and orbital slots:

The FCC’s latest proposal is not as generous to constellation builders as the SES proposal. The U.S. agency now would require that  50% of a constellation must be in orbit within six years of receipt of its license, with an additional three years to launch the remaining satellites.

Launch 50% of it within 6 years, or lose the remaining 50%

A network that does not meet the 50% in-service deadline will not lose its license, but will be forced to operate a network limited to those satellites in orbit at the six-year deadline. The company would also forfeit its $5 million bond.

The FCC also wants to require all constellations to maintain 50% of their licensed fleet in orbit at all times, or risk having their licenses reduced to the fleet size in orbit.

“[W]e conclude that requiring launch and operation of 50 percent of the authorized satellite system within six years of grant strikes an appropriate balance between providing flexibility for the licensee and a measure of certainty for other operators,” the FCC said.

The FCC’s move is in line with most of the comments made by the owners of the proposed constellations, with the exception of OneWeb, which had urged the agency to maintain the all-or-nothing six-year deadline. OneWeb is on track to launch its entire constellation well within the six-year limit, and forestalling any FCC relaxation would deal a blow to the rival SpaceX.

The second major change in the recommendations is to agree to license systems even if their constellations do not cover all U.S. territory. The FCC has already done this for the first-generation O3b/SES Networks constellation, which is in equatorial orbit.

In addition, Space Norway’s proposed constellation of satellites in highly elliptical orbit would target is called the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission and has no pretension to full-U.S. coverage.

“We do not believe it would serve the public interest to block access to these systems solely because of their specialized coverage areas, given that multiple [non-geostationary fixed satellite service] systems can share the same frequency bands,” the FCC said.

“Rather, we expect that the most efficient way to encourage widespread service offerings… including in remove and underserved areas of the United States, would be to allow both general and specialized coverage systems.”

GEO, non-GEO: What about high-altitude systems?

The use of unpiloted aircraft flying above commercial air routes to hover over a given area to provide telecommunications was a difficult topic at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC). It’s on the agenda for WRC-19 as well.

Some nations have a visceral reaction to any platform with the words “U.S. drone” in it and this helped scuttle a U.S.-led effort to assign frequencies to long-distance drones.

Multiple concepts for High-Altitude Platforms (HAPS, in ITU jargon) are on the drawing board for both Earth observation and telecommunications missions. Pictured here is the Thales Alenia Space Stratobus, which the company says could operate as a complement to Google’s Loon broadband-via-balloon project. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

That is not the FCC’s problem. Rather, it is how to add high-altitude platforms into the mix of contestants vying for spectrum access.

Lockheed Martin, which for years has worked on a high-altitude airship, told the FCC:

“[I]n the absence of technical sharing rules, non-GSO systems and airborne platforms have the potential for in-line interference events, whereas such events typically do not arise between traditional terrestrial fixed services and nonGSO operations.19 There are distinct regulatory solutions for different operating scenarios that the Commission should consider to promote sharing between nominally fixed airborne platforms and non-GSO systems in the same band on the same frequencies.”

The FCC said it could not resolve the matter yet and would set it aside for now.

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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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