Spectrum Sharing in Space: SpaceX and OneWeb

Wireless Wonk

Spectrum Sharing in Space: SpaceX and OneWeb

By Barlow Keener, Attorney  |  October 14, 2015

Elon Musk's SpaceX (News - Alert) and OneWeb Ltd., a lesser known company – but one with a very well-known board– have crossed the starting line and are racing toward creating a broadband network delivered from constellations of hundreds to thousands of satellites operating in Low Earth Orbit. 

The idea for delivering broadband with a constellation of satellites is not new. Bill Gates (News - Alert) and Craig McCaw backed a similar company in 1994. It was called Teledesic, and it proposed an 840-satellite constellation orbiting at 435 miles in LEO, and costing $9 billion, or an average of $11 million per bird. Then there was Motorola’s (News - Alert) Iridium, which launched 66 satellites to 485 miles in LEO for $5 billion, or around $75 million each.

OneWeb is planning to launch 648 LEO satellites that would deliver low latency of around 20 milliseconds and Internet connectivity of up to 50mbps. The low latency is achieved due to the low orbits. Customer equipment on the ground will be low cost and can deliver Wi-Fi and small cell mobile service. Because the OneWeb satellites are closer to Earth than geostationary satellites, each satellite covers just a small area of Earth delivering bandwidth down and up to customers, and up and down to Earth stations that connect to the Internet.

Coca-Cola, Hughes, Intelsat (News - Alert), and Qualcomm, among others, are investors. OneWeb board members include Airbus Group CEO Thomas Enders, Bharti Enterprises founder and Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal, OneWeb founder and CEO Greg Wyler, Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

SpaceX is planning a 4,000-satellite constellation. On May 29, 2015, SpaceX applied for experimental licenses for six to eight satellites orbiting at 388 miles. SpaceX is seeking approval of spectrum through both the FCC and the International Telecommunications Union.  

What is fascinating, aside from the new technology and investment pouring into these global broadband projects, is the spectrum regulatory battle brewing. The ITU, a specialized agency controlled by the United Nations, coordinates the assignment of satellite spectrum; ITU filings are made by countries on behalf of companies. However, satellite firms have avoided using the FCC in the U.S. for obtaining spectrum through the ITU because the FCC charges more than other countries and requires much more diligence and complexity.

OneWeb apparently applied for and received approval from the ITU for the former Teledesic spectrum. U.S. satellite companies often bypass the FCC and file first at the ITU.  ITU filings provide priority to the first to file, requiring subsequent filers to avoid interference with the earlier filers. The ITU and the FCC protect high flying satellites using the same frequencies as lower flying LEO satellites by requiring the LEO satellites to power down while crossing through the paths of the higher flying geostationary satellites. Once filed, and approved, the applicant has seven years to put a satellite in use.

In November 2014, there was a gold rush for new broadband satellite spectrum. There were six different filings at the ITU. OneWeb/L5 filed for spectrum through the U.K.   STEAM filed through Norway for 4,257 satellites using Ku and Ka Bands. Some press reports have associated STEAM with SpaceX.

The OneWeb constellation should be implemented by 2019 and will cost around $3 billion, or around $6 million per satellite on average. The first 39 launches will be done by Virgin Galactic in 2017. The primary problem with non-geostationary satellite communications is avoiding interference with non-geostationary satellites already using the spectrum. OneWeb plans to avoid interference using a process it has trademarked called progressive pitch, where satellites are slightly turned to avoid interference with geostationary satellites. OneWeb's ITU dates expire in 2018 and 2020.

In a current FCC docket to amend the FCC’s satellite ITU coordination rules, SpaceX filed comments arguing that“…U.S.-based satellite operators may prefer to operate as U.S. licensees but are often forced to seek ITU filing and coordination through foreign administrations given the current FCC regulatory environment, which often places U.S. networks at a disadvantage...” 

SpaceX also argued that the foreign filings with the ITU was an “abuse of the process by foreign administrations.” They “undermine competition and innovation by significantly delaying or preventing bona fide NGSO [non-geostationary] broadband satellite system proponents from coordinating and ultimately deploying competitive systems.”

The spectrum dispute started on July 9, 2015, when Intelsat filed a letter with the FCC objecting to the SpaceX application for experimental spectrum authority.  Intelsat also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC for confidential SpaceX information filed with the FCC describing how SpaceX would avoid interference and exactly where the SpaceX satellites would fly to prevent collisions with Intelsat satellites.  Intelsat is an investor in OneWeb. SpaceX provided some of the information in response, and then Intelsat requested more information. SpaceX responded calling the further request “a fishing expedition to garner proprietary information.”

Barlow Keener (News - Alert) is the principal with Keener Law Group (www.keenerlawgroup.com).

Edited by Maurice Nagle