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As LEO Industry Grows, FCC Adopts Rule to Limit Space Debris

The vote on space debris comes as an increasing number of LEO satellites are gearing up for launch.

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Illustration of simulation of communications from Globalstar LEO network used with permission

WASHINGTON, September 29, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday unanimously adopted an order that requires operators of low-Earth orbit satellites to dispose of their spacecraft within five years of mission completion.

The new “five-year rule” applies to all low-Earth orbit satellites that are planned to be disposed of via uncontrolled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It replaces a non–legally binding recommendation that LEO satellites be removed within 25 years. The adopted order follows the commission’s 2020 further notice of proposed rulemaking that sought comment on the 25-year benchmark.

The commission said it hopes the five-year rule will limit the amount of debris in space. “We recognize the merits of shortening the 25-year period and agree with commenters who argue that a shorter benchmark would promote a safer orbital debris environment,” the order said.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel argued the order would remove an impediment to innovation. “Right now there are thousands of metric tons of orbital debris in the air above—and it is going to grow,” her statement read. “We need to address it. Because if we don’t, this space junk could constrain new opportunities.”

“Our space economy is moving fast,” she added. “The second space age is here. For it to continue to grow, we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to respond.”

An FCC press release following the order’s adoption on Thursday noted, “There are more than 4,800 satellites operating in orbit as of the end of last year, and the vast majority of those are commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.” According to that release: “The satellite and launch industry is now an estimated $279 billion-a-year sector.”

LEO satellites are a relatively new source of broadband connectivity. Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to launch a “constellation” of 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites the company says will bring broadband service to unserved and underserved areas. Last Spring, Amazon announced it agreements with Arianespace, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance for 83 launches.

The FCC approved Kuiper’s constellation application in 2020. Last year, the commission approved Boeing’s proposed constellation of LEO satellites for connectivity. Other companies such as OneWeb and ATS SpaceMobile have also been active in the LEO space.

SpaceX’s Starlink program, the most high-profile satellite player, recently lost a $885.5 million grant from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in August – a decision panned by Commissioner Brendan Carr. Starlink appealed the setback earlier this month.

Other measures adopted at Thursday’s meeting

At Thursday’s meeting, the FCC also unanimously approved three other measures. The commission adopted an order to improve access to communication services for incarcerated individuals with disabilities, an order that will improve the clarity of emergency alerts, and a notice of proposed rulemaking to modernize regulations for television broadcast stations.

Satellite

LEO Technology Could Connect the Unconnected, Although Capacity Questions Remain

Unlike geostationary satellites, LEOs offer a connection that can support real-time communication.

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Screenshot of Internet Society Director of Online Content Dan York

WASHINGTON, December 2, 2022 — Low earth orbit satellites have the potential to provide life-changing connectivity for rural and underserved users if they can overcome issues of affordability and sustainability, according to Dan York, director of online content for the Internet Society.

Speaking at a Friday event hosted by the Gigabit Libraries Network, York explained that LEO technology can help to not only connect the two billion people worldwide who are unserved but also improve connectivity for the underserved.

Traditional geostationary satellites can provide some connectivity, but the high latency prevents uses like video calling or online gaming. LEOs offer a low-latency, high-speed connection that supports real-time communication.

In addition to being an interim solution while fiber buildout takes place, LEOs can provide redundancy during disasters and other outages, said Don Means, director of the Gigabit Libraries Network.

York agreed, noting that LEO satellites played an important role in providing connectivity during the aftermath of Hurricane Ian or during wildfires in California.

“Starlink makes it super easy because they can bring one of their trailers into a location, put up a Starlink antenna on the top, bring that connectivity down and then they can share it locally with Wi-Fi access points or cellular access points so people can be able to get that kind of connectivity — first responders, but also people in that local community.”

LEO satellites can provide connectivity even for certain locations that lack a ground station by using inter-satellite lasers, York added.

There are three primary LEO system components. Satellite constellations are made up of hundreds or thousands of satellites, launched into orbit and arranged into “shells” at various altitudes.

User terminals facilitate the transmission and receipt of data to and from the satellites. The antennas are “electronically steerable,” meaning that they can track multiple satellites without physically moving.

The final LEO system component is ground stations, also known as gateways, which are the large antennas and facilities that connect the satellites to the internet.

Advances in rocket technology are driving an increase in LEO satellites, York said. For example, SpaceX is reusing rockets, making launches less expensive. The relatively smaller size of LEO satellites means that they can be mass produced using assembly lines.

However, affordability is still a barrier to widespread adoption, York said. Another challenge is competition with mobile telecom companies for spectrum allocation. ISOC recently released a study discussing these issues and making recommendations for their resolution.

There is also still some uncertainty about the capacity of these connections, York said, pointing to anecdotal reports as well as an Ookla study showing that Starlink’s capacity had decreased in certain areas.

“How much of that is growing pains while Starlink continues to build out the rest of its constellation, versus how much of it might be inherent limitations within the systems?” he asked. “We don’t know. I think we probably won’t know until more of these systems get up and are launched.”

Despite these questions, York was optimistic about the promise of LEO technology: “I think there’s great potential that these systems, as they come online, can truly offer us ways to connect the unconnected.”

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FCC

FCC to Establish New Space Bureau, Chairwoman Says

‘The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head.’

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, via fcc.gov

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2022 — The Federal Communications Commission will add a new space bureau that will modernize regulations and facilitate innovation, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced Thursday.

The new bureau is intended to facilitate American leadership in the space economy, boost the Commission’s technical capacity, and foster interagency cooperation, Rosenworcel said, speaking at the National Press Club.

“The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head,” Rosenworcel said. “But the organizational structures of the [FCC] have not kept pace,” she added.

The space economy is “on a monumental run” of growth and innovation, the chairwoman argued, and the FCC must remodel itself to facilitate continued growth. Rosenworcel said the commission is currently reviewing 64,000 new satellite applications, and she further noted that 98 percent of all satellites launched in 2021 provided internet connectivity. By the end off 2022, operators will set a new record for satellites launched into orbit, she said.

The FCC will not take on new responsibilities, Rosenworcel said, but the announced restructuring will help the agency “perform[] existing statutory responsibilities better.” In September, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., warned the FCC against overreaching its statutory mandate and voiced support for robust congressional oversight – a position reiterated by House staffers Wednesday.

“The formation of a dedicated space bureau within the FCC is a positive step for satellite operators and customers across the United States,” said Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs at Amazon’s satellite broadband Project Kuiper, on a panel following Rosenworcel’s announcement.

“An important part of [Rosenworcel’s] space agenda is ensuring that there is a competitive environment in all aspects of that space,” said Umair Javed, the chairwoman’s chief counsel, during the panel. “So we’ve taken action to update our rules on spectrum sharing to make sure that there are opportunities for multiple systems to be successful in low Earth orbit.

“We’ve granted a number of experimental authorizations to companies that are doing really new…things,” Umair continued.

The FCC in September required that low–Earth orbit satellite debris be removed within five years of mission completion, a move Rosenworcel said would clear the way for new innovation.

In August, the FCC revoked an $885 million grant to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-broadband service. FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington criticized the reversal, and Starlink has since appealed it.

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Satellite

Starlink Should Prevail in RDOF Challenge, Says Tech Think Tank

TechFreedom argued that the FCC overstated the flaws of Starlink’s network.

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Screenshot of FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington at the Commission's September 2022 open meeting.

WASHINGTON, October 6, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission’s decision to revoke Starlink’s $885 million award was “arbitrary” and “capricious,” said TechFreedom in comments filed with the commission last week.

Starlink secured the award from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in December 2020, but the agency changed course and pulled the plug on the grant last August, claiming the company’s satellite technology is too new and unreliable to meet RDOF’s requirements. Starlink submitted an application for review of the decision in September.

In its filed comments, TechFreedom, a think tank “dedicated to promoting the progress of technology that improves the human condition,” argued that the FCC overstated the flaws of Starlink’s network. Starlink’s growing constellation of satellites – already numbering in the thousands – is “revolutionary,” and network performance will rapidly improve as more satellites are launched, the comments said.

In response to FCC reservations about lagging upload speeds, the TechFreedom argued that Starlink will reach the required service speeds ­in the remaining three years before the Commission’s official deadline.

“How can the FCC pull all funding for Starlink based on current speed tests for a system that is not yet fully built, and for which deployment, speed, and latency milestones don’t apply for several more years,” the think tank wrote.

TechFreedom also argued that Starlink’s is the only technology able to reach some of the hardest-to-serve areas in America: “When the dust settles on this round of broadband deployment in a few years, and the new maps still show many Americans with no access to high-speed broadband, there will be no one to blame but this Commission.”

Viasat, the Ensuring RDOF Integrity Coalition, and ADTRAN each submitted letters hostile to Starlink’s appeal. The three criticized the at-times heavy redactions in Starlink’s application for review.

“The Commission should not allow Starlink to use redactions as a shield to prevent the public from participating meaningfully in this critical proceeding,” ADTRAN wrote.

Starlink did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, Viasat’s submission rejects the notion that Starlink will eventually meet the required performance standards: “SpaceX also was fully aware of the substantial evidence that Starlink could not meet these performance obligations—evidence that has only continued to mount in the public record since SpaceX filed its long-form application and that SpaceX has consistently refused to refute.”

Among other evidence, Viasat pointed to a recent Ookla study that showed significant drop-offs in Starlink’s median download and upload speeds relative to the previous quarter.

The FCC’s internal dissent

The revocation of Starlink’s grant was met with significant pushback from inside the Commission as well. In August, Commissioner Brendan Carr blasted the decision, saying, “The FCC’s decision offers no reasoned basis for determining that Starlink was incapable of meeting its regulatory obligations.”

Commissioner Nathan Simington outright endorsed Starlink’s challenge. “I am troubled that the decision to rescind SpaceX’s RDOF award applied standards that were not in our RDOF rules, were never approved by the Commission, and in fact made their first appearance in this drastic action,” he said.

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