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Meeting the Spectrum Needs of the Next Generation of Space-Based Connectivity

Meeting the Spectrum Needs of the Next Generation of Space-Based Connectivity

With the emergence of a rapidly increasing number of non-geostationary-satellite (NGSO) and SmallSat networks alongside more traditional geostationary-satellite (GSO) networks, it is estimated that more satellites will be launched in the next 2-3 years than in the last 50 years combined. The 10th Americas Spectrum Management Conference, a virtual event held in October, provided a platform for industry stakeholders to come together to discuss issues related to the management and coordination of spectrum policy across the U.S., Canada and wider Americas’ region.

Jennifer A. Manner, senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs at EchoStar/Hughes, represented the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) as a session panelist on Meeting the Spectrum Needs of the Next Generation of Space-Based Connectivity. SIA is the voice of the U.S. satellite industry. Its members include satellite operators in a range of orbits—from GEO to low and medium earth (LEO/MEO) orbits and beyond—as well as launch providers and manufacturers.

Ms. Manner shared her insights into whether the current rules and regulations governing access to spectrum are sufficient for satellite networks to meet the needs of consumers around the globe. And what the best path forward is to protect users and allow next generation space-based connectivity to flourish.

“These networks need access to spectrum and a transparent regulatory environment. This includes having clear licensing rules and timely action on license applications and predictable, long-term access to the spectrum resource,” Ms. Manner said. “Satellite operators have been and continue to be good shepherds of the spectrum resource. Today GSO and NGSO operators coordinate to share the spectrum.” Sharing is even successfully done with fixed wireless networks.

Yet not all spectrum-based services are good shepherds or good sharers. Ms. Manner noted that the terrestrial mobile industry often demands exclusive spectrum resources and imposes constraints on other services, such as satellites, to limit their use. One such example is what occurred with Ka-band spectrum allocation in the United States.

“The Ka-band has traditionally been available for satellite sharing with fixed services, where satellite broadband has blossomed and been on a growth trajectory. This use by the satellite industry is viewed as so important that a proposal to make portions of the Ka-band available for terrestrial 5G was re-soundly rejected by World Radio Conference (WRC) 15,” she said. Held every three to four years, the WRC reviews and, as necessary, revises the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing radio-frequency spectrum use and GEO and NGSO orbits.

Unfortunately, Ms. Manner said, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined it was more important to make portions of the Ka-band available to 5G mobile terrestrial wireless at the expense of satellite. The FCC then adopted “sharing” rules that further constrain satellite operation in portions of the Ka-band.

“We are concerned that as the satellite industry continues to grow in use and importance, the spectrum be made available for operators in key satellite bands such as the Ka-band, on a long term and predictable basis,” she stressed. “This means that governments must look at the use of spectrum on a technology neutral basis; there must be an appropriate balance to ensure that all technologies have access to the spectrum they require.”

A technology agnostic approach would also help to streamline the license application process. Today, the FCC has more than 600 Special Temporary Applications (STA) pending for satellite earth stations, which hampers an operator’s ability to swiftly deploy broadband services to consumers.

“Given it’s such a dynamic industry, it is critical that regulators can act on pending applications at a reasonable pace, otherwise it negatively impacts the ability to meet user demands. This is why the satellite industry has worked to advance streamlined licensing rules at the FCC and globally,” she said. “Good examples include how the focus of the satellite industry in Latin America has been on blanket licensing for VSATs (very small aperture terminals) and at the FCC for reducing unnecessary technical information and developing a more efficient process for the licensing of small satellite constellations.”

By working together to solve these issues, “The satellite industry and regulators can ensure that our growing multi-orbit world of satellite communications will meet the demand of users around the world.”