FCC approves rules for NTN direct-to-device service

The Federal Communications Commission has unanimously approved a new rules framework on satellite-based, cellular communications directly to end-user devices—or “supplemental coverage from space” (SCS).

The new rules provide guidance to “enable collaborations between wireless carriers and satellite operators to make sure smartphone users stay connected even in areas where there is no terrestrial mobile service,” according to the agency.

“We will not be successful in our effort to make … always-on connectivity available everywhere if we limit ourselves to using only one technology. We are going to need it all—fiber networks, licensed terrestrial wireless systems, next-generation unlicensed technology, and satellite broadband,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “But if we do this right, these networks will seamlessly interact in a way that is invisible to the user.”

The SCS framework enables satellite operators who are working with terrestrial service providers to ask for FCC authorization to operate space stations in spectrum that is currently allocated for wireless services—as long as they meet conditions like having a spectrum lease in place. Once they get authorization, the satellite operator can then serve that MNO’s customers within the specific geographic area, if they are out of terrestrial network coverage.

However, there are some issues around 911 emergency calling that need to be addressed. For now, the FCC established that terrestrial MNOs have to route all 911 calls made through SCS to a public safety answering point (PSAP) using either location-based routing or an emergency call center, and the agency put out a further rulemaking asking for input on making sure that SCS calls get routed correctly.

With the way that the FCC has set up the SCS rules, Rosenworcel said, “there is no need to wait for new spectrum or a new generation of devices. Satellite operators and their carrier collaborators can use terrestrial spectrum that is already in the market to bring these services to the phones that we have today. Even better, we accomplish all of this while protecting existing networks from harmful interference by ensuring that the new supplemental satellite operations are secondary to mobile network operations and requiring that one or more carriers hold all co-channel licenses throughout a defined geographically independent area.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that the new rules commit the agency to “taking a serious, evidence-based look at any reasonable proposal that deserves our attention, whether that proposal meets the criteria set forth in our rules or charts a different course,” so that the agency can keep up with both the promise of NTN technology as well as innovative approaches.

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