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CHAPTER I - Introduction

Satellites play a unique role in the information and communications landscape. From a communications standpoint, satellite-based systems are able to offer virtually ubiquitous coverage. They offer compelling connectivity to ships at sea, airplanes and for rural areas where infrastructure costs make terrestrial broadband service both difficult to deploy and uneconomical. Their international nature brings unique benefits, as well as challenging regulatory considerations: Every satellite system must be registered at a United Nations (UN) specialized agency called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU); use of radio frequency spectrum must be coordinated where required by ITU rules; and operators must obtain licenses in each country in which they want to provide service. The ITU plays a central role in managing satellite use. It is through recording in the ITU’s Master Register that frequency assignments associated with a satellite system have the right to international recognition and are taken into account by other spectrum users in order to avoid harmful interference.

Broadband data and communications services often get the lion’s share of policy attention. Satellites, however, are not a monolith, and differences in use-cases vary tremendously. Weather and climate monitoring, navigation, global time synchronization, reconnaissance satellites and television distribution are some of the critical space-based systems. Each of these systems has a different spectrum use profile, a unique set of interference concerns and a different set of policy considerations. Furthermore, the diversity and number of satellites is rapidly changing. Firms like SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and Virgin are working to deploy large constellations of broadband satellites. The potential to deploy these new systems is based on significant technological advances that are driving down the size, weight and therefore the costs of deploying smaller, specialized devices into orbit.

Understanding this diversity and the rapidly changing landscape is key to appreciating the unique spectrum challenges in forward-looking satellite policy. As such, in October 2018 the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convened key stakeholders, policymakers and competing corporations to discuss these issues and work toward finding new solutions and consensus where possible. The group could not address the policy minutia of all these different types of satellites and their uses during a two-day moderated dialogue. Instead, they explored a key theme—the changing satellite landscape with more and smaller satellites operating in orbits closer to the Earth, structured in larger constellations, all seeking access to an increasingly limited amount of available spectrum. This report is a synthesis of those discussions.

Largely speaking, the satellite sector is not alone in its growing demand for spectrum. Terrestrial communications services, such as 5G, are the most obvious source of demand for more spectrum. Cisco estimates a 46 percent compound annual growth rate of mobile traffic through 2022, with streaming video driving much of the acceleration. Spectrum is of course a key limiting input to meeting the demand for data traffic, and the FCC and regulators internationally have prioritized the allocation of spectrum for 5G services. Some of this spectrum, notably the high-band spectrum, is anticipated to be shared or adjacent to existing satellite services.

Much of the regulatory structure and international coordination processes governing the sector were developed when satellites were “large and few,” leading to regulation that was “workably inefficient,” in the words of Clemson University Professor Thomas Hazlett. Satellites are no longer large and few, but increasingly small and numerous. While some are the size of a bus and weighing over 6,000 pounds, they can also be smaller than a lunchbox.i Constellations can now be composed of hundreds or even thousands of satellites.

Different classes of use-cases fall into specific regulatory classifications or service definitions. For example, the Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) provides service to earth stations at specific geographic locations. The Mobile-Satellite Service (MSS), as one might imagine, provides services to mobile earth stations, such as satellite telephones. Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (SDARS) provides mobile satellite radio (for example, SiriusXM is a licensee). Another important distinction in the satellite regulation realm is between active services—which both transmit and receive radio signals—and passive services, which only receive.

i Some of the smallest satellites are being deployed by Swarm Technologies Inc. See Application of Swarm Technologies Inc. for Authority to Launch and Operate a Non-Voice, Non-Geostationary Lower Earth Orbit Satellite System in the Mobile-Satellite Services, IBFS File No. SAT-LOA-20181221-00094, (filed Dec. 21, 2018) at attachment Narrative Exhibit, 1-2. Available online: Each satellite has a total mass ranging from 0.31 to 0.45 kilograms, and dimensions of 11 x 11 x 2.8 cm (¼U cubesat form factor), excluding the deployable antennas.
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