Updated April 12, 2023. Originally posted March 23, 2023.
In March, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that seeks public comment on a proposed licensing framework that would enable multiple satellite operators to supplement the network coverage of terrestrial wireless service providers. Termed “Supplemental Coverage from Space” (SCS), this service would authorize certain satellite systems to use spectrum licensed to a terrestrial network provider partner to provide expanded coverage to the provider’s wireless customers, even in remote areas. Comments on the NPRM, which appeared in today’s Federal Register, are due Friday, May 12, with reply comments due the following month, on Monday, June 12.
Over the last year or so, there has been a trend towards the use of satellite communications to provide supplemental coverage to terrestrial wireless networks, resulting in numerous partnerships between satellite operators, wireless service providers, and device manufacturers. The FCC’s NPRM responds to this trend with a proposed licensing framework intended to “incentivize creative partnerships between terrestrial network and [satellite] operators” as these stakeholders work to meet the growing demand among wireless customers for seamless connectivity, even in remote locations. The NPRM also marks yet another space industry-related action by the FCC, continuing a general trend towards greater FCC interest and involvement in regulating commercial space activities.
Although the NPRM seeks comment on many issues related to the provision of SCS, the key proposal concerns a new licensing framework for partnerships between wireless network providers with exclusive rights to terrestrial-only spectrum and non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite operators. To facilitate these sorts of partnerships, the FCC proposes a licensing framework that would allow NGSO satellite operators to access certain spectrum licensed to their wireless network provider partners.
Specifically, the proposed SCS licensing framework would modify the FCC’s spectrum allocation, licensing, and leasing rules to bring about two broad changes. First, the proposed rules would open to satellite communications certain spectrum bands currently allocated exclusively to terrestrial operations. Second, the rules would allow an NGSO satellite operator to seek a modification to its existing FCC license that would authorize its use of the reallocated spectrum bands, provided certain conditions are met.
Terrestrial-Only Spectrum Bands Identified for Proposed SCS Use
The proposed rules would allow communications from satellite networks to mobile devices (i.e., Mobile Satellite Service or MSS) in the following spectrum bands:
- 600 MHz (617–652 MHz and 663–698 MHz);
- 700 MHz (698–746 MHz, 746–758 MHz, 775–788 MHz, and 805–806 MHz);
- 800 MHz (824–849 MHz and 869–894 MHz);
- Broadband PCS (1850–1915 MHz and 1930–1995 MHz);
- AWS-H Block (1915–1920 MHz and 1995–2000 MHz); and
- Wireless Communications Services (2305–2320 MHz and 2345–2360 MHz)
Each of these bands currently is allocated exclusively for terrestrial “flexible use,” meaning the FCC’s rules do not limit these bands to use by specific applications (provided they are terrestrial in nature). The NPRM also specifies that terrestrial bands would be suitable for use by satellite networks only if one entity holds all the necessary spectrum licenses in the relevant geographic area (e.g., CONUS, Alaska, Hawaii, the U.S. territories).
Proposed License Modification Process for SCS Authority
For an NGSO satellite operator with an agreement to use terrestrial spectrum (through a spectrum lease), the proposed SCS rules would allow that operator to modify its license to access this spectrum for use by its satellite system. Notably, the proposed rules also would require, as a precondition for an NGSO satellite operator to modify its license, that the operator’s terrestrial partner apply for a separate license (a blanket earth station license) covering all the terrestrial devices that would communicate with the NGSO satellite system providing SCS.
The NPRM also seeks public comment on a host of technical and policy issues associated with the proposed SCS licensing framework. This includes issues related to interference mitigation, international spectrum coordination, the regulatory status of SCS communications (common-carrier versus non-common-carrier), and the application of the FCC’s 911 requirements to the provision of SCS service.
In addition, the NPRM seeks comment on whether the new licensing framework should allow geostationary satellite orbit (GSO) satellite operators to seek SCS-related license modifications. Some GSO satellite systems already provide supplemental coverage to terrestrial networks pursuant to their existing authority to serve mobile earth terminals (i.e., smartphones and other handsets). However, these GSO systems use spectrum allocated for satellite use (not the terrestrial spectrum that the NPRM proposes to open to SCS for NGSO operators), and although they currently have the capability to provide wireless subscribers with near-total coverage, there are some limitations. For example, because GSO satellites are located more than 20,000 miles above Earth — far higher than NGSO satellites — latency (i.e., the time it takes for a signal to travel from a handset to the satellite) can be an issue.
Comments on the NPRM will be due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, which has not yet occurred.