FCC Votes to Make Satellite-Carrier Cooperation Easier

UPDATE The FCC wants to make it easier for wireless carriers and satellite operators to work with each other to provide supplemental satellite-delivered cell service to smartphone users in remote unserved areas.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggests adding a mobile-satellite service allocation to a class of terrestrial flexible-use bands that have no primary, federal or non-federal satellite allocations. The action would permit satellites to provide what the agency is calling “Supplemental Coverage from Space,” or SCS, to terrestrial networks. The carrier and satellite operator would share the band on a co-primary basis. The agency says band incumbents would be protected from harmful interference.

Satellite operators would need a lease from the carrier within a specified geographic area. A satellite operator could then serve a wireless provider’s customers to those who need connectivity in remote areas. Officials characterized it as a low-band signal capable of supporting text messages, and in some limited cases, voice calls.

During the vote, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said: “We no longer live in a world where wireline competes with wireline and mobile just competes with mobile. Increasingly, we see cable providers serve mobile wireless customers while traditional wireless carriers are adding different services. Consumers are reaping the rewards. The item we adopt today recognizes consumers do not care whether the signal was beamed to their device from a tower on an office building or from a satellite orbiting the earth.”

Carr also said the FCC needs to keep its foot on the gas pedal and continue to modernize its processing of satellite applications to encourage more providers to base their operations in this country.

Through this framework, which agency officials are calling a “Single Network Future,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks explained the Commission is not shutting out systems that don’t meet the criteria now. “We’ve already seen signs of interest in SCS from wireless carriers that do not have nationwide spectrum, and from carriers that do but believe their non-nationwide holdings offer a better fit for the service.” He also noted some satellite operators are interested in SCS, but “are still experimenting or do not yet have a commercial license covering the full scale of their system.”

On the telecom side, some smaller and regional carriers “have raised concerns about being left behind, even if they join forces in the same channel to clear the way for a competitive offering,” noted Starks.

The NPRM seeks comment on how the framework could support access to emergency response systems like 911 and Wireless Emergency Alerts when a consumer is connected via supplemental coverage from space. Both Starks and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel highlighted a recent case in which the satellite SOS feature on an iPhone 14 enabled a California couple to reach help after their car crashed 300 feet into a canyon, with no cell service. A rescue helicopter came for them in 30 minutes, according to Rosenworcel.

The new proceeding will also seek to build a record on whether the framework can be extended to other bands, locations, and applications that might be supported by such collaborations. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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