At last week’s Satellite 2015 conference, considerable attention was focused on new LEO constellations, most prominently OneWeb, whose founder Greg Wyler made a keynote speech to introduce the system and a couple of mockup terminals. Although many doubts exist about the feasibility of the OneWeb system (particularly with regard to the very ambitious cost estimates and the plausibility of building a profitable global Internet access business), its clear that OneWeb is moving aggressively to try and secure funding and sign a contract for satellite construction with one of five bidders in the next month.
Much less was said at the conference about SpaceX’s proposed 4000 satellite constellation, which Elon Musk announced in January with a half-baked speech in Seattle, which included many off-the-wall and some completely incorrect statements (such as that Teledesic “were trying to talk to phones”). Back in January, Google’s investment of $900M in SpaceX was seen as initiating a partnership to launch this new satellite system. However, at Satellite 2015, SpaceX made clear that the satellite venture was in the “very early stages” and Google’s investment was “not for the global internet project we’re exploring right now.”
A logical conclusion to draw, given Musk’s usually impeccable technical depth and the later change in description of Google’s investment, is that the announcement of the SpaceX constellation was rushed out in order to overshadow Wyler’s announcement of the much more modest investment he had secured from Qualcomm and Virgin.
However, what SpaceX has already done (on March 2) is make a filing at the FCC, which “support[ed] the extension of proposed changes to the Commission’s ITU coordination procedures to NGSO systems to encourage such filings through the U.S. administration”. SpaceX noted that there were “incentives for foreign administrations to pursue NGSO broadband satellite filing strategies that effectively block access to available spectrum and orbital resources” in contrast to the FCC’s “modified processing round” approach.
SpaceX proposed that licensees also be required to launch and operate a percentage of the authorized number of satellites (such as 5%) within 3.5 years and then 75% of the authorized satellites within 6 years, rather than the current milestones of 1 satellites then the entire constellation. In addition, it was proposed that the initial milestones for contracting for, and beginning construction of, the satellite constellation should each be shortened by 6 months.
All of these proposals are clearly intended to make OneWeb’s life more difficult. However, the more important subtext of SpaceX’s submission is that it would clearly like to be subject to the FCC rules, which mandate a sharing of both Ku-band and Ka-band NGSO spectrum between all entrants, regardless of ITU filing priority, based on avoidance of inline interference events.
Under these rules, the spectrum is split in half when two satellites from different systems are inline with one another and would therefore interfere with terminals at a particular location on the ground, and the first system to launch simply gets to indicate which (fixed) half of the spectrum it will use during these inline events. Given the large number of satellites that SpaceX and OneWeb both propose to launch, this splitting of the spectrum would happen almost all the time, and therefore for all intents and purposes, OneWeb would lose access to half of the Ku-band NGSO spectrum once both systems were operational.
Some have argued that OneWeb could simply rely on its ITU priority and not seek a license from the FCC. However, its hard to imagine that ignoring the US market is practical, given that the vast majority of the world’s satellite broadband subscribers today are in North America, and OneWeb has expressed its ambitions to provide inflight connectivity services, when most equipped aircraft are also based in North America. Moreover, if as many suspect, one of Qualcomm’s reasons for investing in OneWeb is to gain access to spectrum that could eventually be authorized for terrestrial 5G use (just like the ATC applications by LightSquared, Globalstar and others for 4G in the L-band and S-band), it is hard to imagine trying to pursue such an approach through any administration other than the FCC.
While it might be more difficult for the FCC to enforce its mandated allocation on systems licensed through other administrations when they are operating outside the US (notably Globalstar licensed its second generation constellation through France for precisely this reasons, after the FCC reallocated some L-band spectrum to Iridium), mutually assured destruction could potentially result if a US-licensed system decided to transmit in half of the spectrum in accordance with US rules, wherever its satellites were operating around the globe. (Note that, in contrast, Iridium and Globalstar have reportedly not noticed any interference from the two systems operating at relatively low levels of loading in the portion of the L-band spectrum that the two operators share.)
With OneWeb looking to close an investment round of between $300M and $500M in April, and start manufacturing satellites, it would therefore not be in the least surprising if SpaceX decides to ask the FCC to initiate an NGSO processing round in the very near future (perhaps in both the Ku-band and Ka-band) as a way of impairing OneWeb’s ability to move forward, and perhaps even preventing the investment round from closing. Musk certainly seems to have decided that he wants to destroy Wyler’s project (perhaps because he doesn’t like any potential imitator as a publicity-seeking space entrepreneur), and it is notable that the Steam filings, through Norway, which are generally believed to be controlled by SpaceX, were received at the ITU on June 27, 2014, when Wyler and Musk were still in discussions about potential collaboration.
The effects of an FCC processing round would be to delay any regulatory certainty about NGSO spectrum allocations for at least a year and possibly much more, while the FCC decided whether to confirm its existing rules for spectrum sharing, and it became clear whether this approach would be adopted elsewhere. There could also be some notable knock-on effects from any Ka-band processing round on O3b, whose FCC authorization specifically states that O3b’s use of the NGSO Ka-band spectrum is “subject to the sharing method specified in Establishment of Policies and Service Rules for the Non-Geostationary Satellite Orbit, Fixed Satellite Service in the Ka-band, Report and Order, IB Docket 02-19, 18 FCC Rcd 14708 (2003) and 47 C.F.R.§ 25.261.”
Thus the FCC has mandated that O3b must share its existing NGSO Ka-band spectrum with future systems, and the launch of a new large NGSO Ka-band system (which might include SpaceX’s constellation, if it operates in both Ku- and Ka-band) could have a meaningful effect on O3b’s operations in the future, whether O3b complies with the FCC ruling or withdraws from operating in the US in (what might end up being) a futile attempt to evade these constraints.