FCC focuses on the ‘second space age’

There are three areas of focus for the FCC’s space efforts

As space-based communications become ever more important and begin to converge with terrestrial wireless, the Federal Communications Commission is focusing on bolstering its staffing and updating regulations in order to support U.S. technology leadership in this area.

“Satellite systems have long been a part of our portfolio. But what is happening now is new,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a speech at yesterday’s Global Aerospace Summit in Washington, D.C. “Every day we see new companies, new business models, and new technologies that are pioneering a new space economy. Every day we see how the expansion of new space-based activities can remake our world—and that there is work to do to support all of this activity in our highest altitudes.”

Space-based systems are increasingly relevant to terrestrial wireless, from the testing of unmanned High-Altitude Platform Stations that can broadcast cellular signals from the Earth’s stratosphere, to the converging path of terrestrial and non-terrestrial systems in standards work. While there are lofty plans for a 4G and eventually 5G cellular network on the moon to support the U.S. space program, closer to Earth, Apple announced emergency satellite communications capabilities for the iPhone, and T-Mobile US and SpaceX unveiled a spectrum-sharing partnership in which SpaceX’s Starlink LEO service will carry text messages in areas where T-Mobile US’ terrestrial cellular coverage doesn’t reach. Even more recently, Virginia-based Omnispace said last week that it has launched two LEO satellites and is working with Filipino telco company PLDT’s wireless subsidiary Smart Communications to explore and demonstrate the capabilities of space-based 5G communications, and interconnection with terrestrial networks.

Rosenworcel said that the FCC is working on three lines of effort related to space-based communications: Seeking to update various space-related regulations, trying to promote space innovation through releases of new spectrum and inquiries into areas such as in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM), and also taking “space sustainability” into account, such as the life cycle of satellites and the management of orbiting space junk that could damage critical satellite systems or impede the launch of future systems. She said that the FCC has increased by 38% the size of its division that handles satellite issues in order to keep pace with the amount of commercial activity, and also pointed to the FCC’s work to open up 17 GHz spectrum for space-based use and boost use of 50.4-51.4 GHz by satellite operators, as well as dedicating some 2.2 GHz spectrum for commercial space launches.

“The regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape space policy were largely built for another era. They were designed for a time when going to space was astronomically expensive and limited to the prowess of our political superpowers,” as opposed to commercial companies, Rosenworcel said, adding, “We are setting the foundation—or maybe I should say the launchpad—to go even farther and expand the opportunities in space.”

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