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CHAPTER V - Potential Policy Responses to Satellite Spectrum Dynamics

In addition to the general challenges posed by the complex ITU filing process, the difficulty in developing alternative methods of allocating a limited, global resource, and the limited enforcement mechanisms available in the current regime, roundtable participants discussed several specific policy goals and objectives, and offered up potential policy responses.

Policy Objectives
Satellites play a crucial role in commerce, security and innovation. Although a key over-arching theme of the roundtable was identifying outdated processes that might limit otherwise burgeoning investment in new space-based tools, there are other policy objectives that satellite spectrum policy must take into account. Some of the broad concerns include the important role of satellites in serving extremely high-cost areas to help close the digital divide and serve rural parts of the United States—and the world—that have limited connectivity infrastructure. Satellite spectrum policy should also consider its impact on innovation, in space services itself, adjacent industries and throughout the economy. Policymakers should also consider the role of competition in satellite policy.

Rural and Digital Divide. Nicol Turner Lee, Fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that, “Satellites are unique in their ability to cover a very wide area. Satellites can play an important role in bridging the digital divide, particularly in rural areas.” Policymakers may want to enable a healthy satellite industry that can continue to improve broadband performance and leverage the broad coverage and reliability of the service.

Blair Levin, Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that policymaking relying on satellite broadband as an acceptable solution for rural connectivity, “involves a lot of things other than actual facts and data.” Aside from the hard data comparative cost and performance of running fiber to every home versus allowing the area to be served by satellite alone, policymakers have to make a value judgment about what level of connectivity is adequate for rural areas (although more of the hard data is needed as well, Levin noted).

To some extent, these value judgments are built into the existing subsidy allocation mechanism at the FCC. The Connect America Fund (CAF), the primary government subsidy mechanism to support deployment of broadband infrastructure to rural or otherwise high-cost areas (e.g. disadvantaged portions of urban environments) aims to be technologically neutral in the type of access network that can receive a subsidy. However, it does functionally handicap satellite participation in the program. Subsidies are allocated through what is essentially a reverse or procurement auction, and bids are weighted depending on the performance characteristics a particular network can be expected to achieve. For example, if a bidder is offering to lay fiber that can achieve faster speeds, that bid will be weighted such that it can beat out a somewhat less costly, but more meager upgrade. This bid weighting mechanism takes latency as well as speed into account in a way that functionally prevents robust satellite participation in CAF. Jennifer Manner noted it was a “70-point disadvantage for satellite …because of latency, capacity and speeds.” In particular, the FCC’s requirement of 100 milliseconds of latency effectively precludes GSO participation. This despite the fact, she says, satellite can outcompete CAF supported builds in some markets, such as in parts of Alaska.

Claude Aiken, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Wireless Internet Service Provider’s Association, provided a different perspective from the terrestrial side, noting that when rural fixed wireless providers build out to an area previously only served by satellite broadband, the new terrestrial provider often takes “90-plus percent of the customers.” He identified data caps, latency and cost as competitive challenges for satellite broadband, but recognized that for some portion of rural areas it remains a legitimate solution.

Enabling Innovation. The burgeoning interest in new satellite systems is an obvious area of innovation that policy should seek to enable, or at least avoid constraining. As discussed above, a sizable proportion of the investment in new space systems is broadband-focused, but entrepreneurs and new entrants are also developing new applications in remote sensing, environmental observation and space tourism. Satellite-based tools like GPS have been key enablers of disruptive new services when coupled with the powerful capabilities of terrestrialbased wireless networks. Earth exploration and passive measurement services provide crucial information that feeds into numerous systems to inform daily decision-making. Traditional satellite services—direct broadcast television, satellite radio and voice communications continue to innovate as well.

Given the diversity of applications and satellite spectrum uses, policy tools to support innovation in the area tend to be abstract rather than specific. Satellite services require significant investment and development costs before offering service. Such economic characteristics require certainty and stability—satellite operators must have the confidence that a stable regulatory environment exists and an operational environment with acceptable interference before investing the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars needed to provide service. Good regulatory tools to define those expectations, and adequate institutions to provide enforcement are needed.

However, there is also the concern of undue barriers to entry potentially challenging new entrants to explore new services, technologies or techniques. One of the crucial concerns identified at the roundtable was the potential constraint of a complex bureaucratic system at the ITU, and how it might stifle otherwise viable new services.

Competition. Different satellite services have had different levels of success in competing in the broader information technology ecosystem. Given the experience of the 1990s, where significant satellite investments ultimately proved uncompetitive with terrestrial cellular wireless telephony, the group focused on those areas where satellite services have proven successfully competitive with terrestrial services, and on what lessons could be learned. Some obvious success stories include Direct Broadcast Satellite television (DBS), Satellite Digital Audio Radio (SDAR), on high-throughput satellite (HTS) that is able to offer fairly robust broadband service, such as that of HughesNet and Viasat. There is an expectation—as yet untested—that future NGSO satellite constellations, such as those being developed by Telesat, OneWeb, SpaceX, LeoSat, Amazon and O3b networks, will eventually be competitive with terrestrial broadband networks.

Generally speaking, satellite is most competitive where today’s broadband infrastructure is unsupportable due to the economics of low population density. Other key customers of satellite service include planes and boats, especially as they traverse the various oceans and seas that make up most of the planet’s surface, and trains, especially transcontinental trains traversing large land areas that are relatively uninhabited. Satellite communications can also be very effective in connecting the many far-flung operations of an enterprise customer, or connecting unique industries like mining and forestry where key operations are often far away from any existing infrastructure.

Satellite also gains market share where resiliency is particularly essential—such as during emergencies or disasters—and to provide backup for crucial public safety or national security services. Satellite can also provide competitive service for broadcast video distribution, and also narrowband services, such as IoT and smart agriculture connectivity. Additionally, there are important government systems that rely on satellite that operate outside of competitive concerns. Other than these cases, satellite is often a complement to other terrestrial service with a relatively small user-base compared to terrestrial wireless.

Harold Feld noted concerns with an aggressive shift in restructuring spectrum management toward a system that places too high a value on the most profitable uses of spectrum which can in turn undermine important but unprofitable systems. The high sunk costs and network effects of some satellite services, can have some natural monopoly tendencies, and, as Harold said, “Here are some generally regarded critical uses of satellite communication technology that make it very important to have a satellite industry, but they don’t seem to be enough to support a competitive marketplace.”

Policy Proposals
A number of more specific policy proposals would assist in enabling innovation in satellite services, clear the path for competitive entry of new satellite-based entrepreneurs, and potentially help bridge the digital divide through ubiquitous high-speed broadband. A spectrum management system could better maximize the productive use of spectrum—satellite or otherwise—through a clearer, risk-informed articulation of rights and expectations around the potential for harmful interference, rather than relying on competing technical filings spelling out worst-case scenarios. Reforms to make licenses more flexible, either through a “satellite sandbox,” or more modest changes to reduce the rigidity in service classifications would benefit satellite specific spectrum policy.

Incorporate Receiver Standards Responsibly. As spectrum uses become far more intense across all dimensions, and more services are packed closer together in frequency, time and space, it is inevitable that interference disputes will occur. One policy proposal relates to how spectrum managers define those borders and articulate the rights and expectations on either side by responsibly incorporating receiver standards into the regulator’s toolkit.

Spectrum managers have historically thought about borders between spectrum users largely in terms of “time, area and spectrum,” and as Professor Dennis Roberson pointed out, contemporary problems are increasingly concerned with area as it relates to three dimensions instead of two. As Roberson explained, “There are significant technical challenges with thousands of low earth orbiting satellites zinging around the planet and trying to interact with airplanes, and drones, and cars that are moving at high rates of speed.” This incredibly complex environment calls for “a regulatory structure that can deal efficiently and effectively with this ever more complex environment.” One tool Roberson pointed to is a move toward a risk-informed approach to understanding harmful interference. A second is to better define the boundaries between what is permissible or accepted interference between services and what is harmful interference.

Efforts to incorporate receivers’ performance into regulatory consideration has been a recurring topic at Aspen AIRS roundtables. Interference depends on both the transmitter and the receiver, and in many ways spectrum management has historically focused much more on the transmitter (or in many cases only on the transmitter) than the receiver. Thresholds can work to define the power level receivers would be expected to tolerate at a particular area before having an actionable claim for harmful interference. Harm claim thresholds can be thought of as the protection criteria that define the borders of any particular spectrum right.i

The lack of good tools to incorporate considerations of receiver performance into regulatory decisions helps explain some of the most protracted spectrum disputes. For example, the LightSquared debacle likely could have been resolved more quickly if regulators had a good way to communicate expectations around receiver performance to involved parties. Blair Levin, who led the development of the National Broadband Plan released in 2010, noted that “the failure of the National Broadband Plan to address receiver standards [was] one of the great errors of that effort…. The fact that we still haven’t done it is perhaps evidence of why we didn’t do it then, but every day we delay is a problem.”

Move Toward Risk-Based Interference Analysis. The need for better risk analysis when it comes to the potential for harmful interference is a recurring theme at this and other Aspen AIRS roundtables. Risk-informed interference assessment seeks to understand the real-world nature of the impact interference would have in terms of the frequency and magnitude of harm on the system level.

Dale Hatfield from the University of Colorado at Boulder argued for this approach, “We’ve got to stop doing things based upon worst-case interference analysis.” He pointed to the work of Pierre de Vries, a previous Aspen AIRS participant, and the FCC Technological Advisory Council.ii As Hatfield explained, “We can get an awful lot more yield out of this [spectrum] if we get away from the old sort of way of doing things where you use worst case. Very little probability of happening, and even if it happens, it doesn’t cause any harm, but yet we still give somebody sort of a property right.” Professor Dennis Roberson also stressed the importance of policymakers making this transition away from decision-making from worst case scenario to “We need to use a risk informed approach versus the classical worst case approach. It’s mandatory,” he said.

Increase Flexibility. There are several ways to make the rights to use spectrum more flexible, and thereby allow operators to more quickly develop technology and adapt their systems to new uses. When it comes to flexibility in spectrum authorizations, proposals range from the more radical or experimental approach of total flexibility in a given band, to more modest alterations to licensing structures. For example, create a more general service classification. How to achieve the right balance of flexibility and confidence providing interference-free service through spectrum licenses has been another perennial topic discussed at AIRS roundtables.

One proposal shared by several participants is a so-called “satellite spectrum sandbox.” The basic idea offers a band of spectrum with very minimal technical rules and otherwise extreme flexibility to facilitate easy entry and use of the spectrum. This is akin to the unlicensed frequencies in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, for example. The FCC does maintain an experimental licensing program and amateur spectrum access, but this group envisioned a much more permissive regime with a much longer spectrum availability than that provided by the experimental licensing program, at least allowed in one band.

One working group suggested that the “unlicensed” satellite spectrum should be located at a very high frequency and have a very large bandwidth to enable a large number of users with relatively light technical rules. Such an experimental sandbox would significantly reduce barriers to entry and potentially help foster satellite innovation by enabling experimentations with a satellite service before a firm explores procuring rights to its own protected spectrum. This would empower an emerging satellite ecosystem that cannot invest in expensive exploration of spectrum acquisition and bridge the chasm for innovators and investors.

Another participant suggested a private commons approach, whereby “you would assign the license to somebody who wants to operate it as a private commons, not an infrastructure based or service based licensee like we always assume, but one that just establishes standards for equipment that operates from the core of the Earth to the heavens, and manages the spectrum accordingly.” This approach would be somewhat similar to the Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC) model that allows a consortium of airlines to manage spectrum for their own systems, however the ARINC model does not allow flexible use, as was envisioned by the roundtable. Another potential legal model to follow is the private commons authorized under the FCC’s secondary market policies.iii A management organization with the right incentives to see productive use of a band could oversee development of agreed-upon technological protocols that would facilitate sharing between different satellite and terrestrial systems.

Amateur operations and experimental licenses could also provide spectrum management models that could either be expanded or provide useful lessons for a potential satellite spectrum sandbox. Amateur satellite operations in the U.S. are allowed under FCC regulations. Operators must meet a number of technical requirements, and ITU paperwork is coordinated through the FCC’s International Bureau. The FCC and ITU require that amateur satellite spectrum use be coordinated through the International Amateur Radio Union. The FCC is in the process of updating its rules for small satellites, many of which rely on either amateur or experimental authorizations.iv

Some were skeptical of this radical freedom, noting that the ITU and national regulators would not be likely to get on board with privatizing their spectrum management responsibilities. Even if these organizations supported such an idea, it would take a long time to implement on the ITU’s schedule, as it would have to be put on agenda for WRC-23 or WRC-27.

Others raised operational concerns. There are important spectrum protocols to control satellites, known as Tracking, Telemetry and Command (or TT&C), that provide crucial communications between the spacecraft and the ground, for example, to adjust the satellite’s orbit, make changes to the solar panels, or update software controls. It is important these services operate on an interference-free basis, so even if unprotected, and unlicensed operations were permitted, protected TT&C services would have to be provided.

One easier incremental step on the way to an unlicensed satellite band, or an alternative to it, would be to offer more flexibility in how licenses are structured around service classes.

There was broad consensus among the roundtable participants that the ITU should work to move away from the narrow classifications of different satellite services (i.e. fixed, mobile or broadcast) and allocate spectrum as a “General Satellite Service.” Such a transition to a more flexible satellite licensing regime would come with significant benefits, most notably it would allow firms to adjust to market signals much more easily.

However, a GSS allocation would come with some tradeoffs. There would be real technical challenges because of potential interference between dissimilar services and different architectures, and harmonizing regulations would be complex. The proposal would likely face opposition by incumbents who benefit by the current system, as well as the ITU itself. Despite these challenges, many participants strongly felt this was a relatively low hanging fruit to improve the agility of satellite services to adapt to market conditions. It is likely the new general classification would have to be introduced in a new, clear band before attempting to reform prior allocations.

There was a proposal from the United States presented to the ITU in the 1980s to create a General Satellite Service, but according to Jose Albuquerque, “It was shot down in the ITU just because the regulations are so complicated that to try to make a change of this magnitude would just not work.”

i See The Spectrum and Receiver Performance Working Group of the Federal Communications Commission’s Technological Advisory Council, “Interference Limits Policy and Harm Claim Thresholds: An Introduction” (March 2014). Available online:
ii See The Spectrum and Receiver Performance Working Group of the Federal Communications Commission’s Technological Advisory Council, “A Quick Introduction to Risk-Informed Interference Assessment” (April 2015). Available online:
iii See Secondary Markets Second Report and Order, WT Docket No. 00-230, 19 FCC Rcd 17503, 17549-53 ¶¶ 91-99 (2004); see also Secondary Markets Third Report and Order, WT Docket No. 00-230, 22 FCC Rcd 7209, 7210-13 ¶¶ 5-9 (2007).
iv Streamlining Licensing Procedures for Small Satellites, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, IB Docket No. 18-86, 33 FCC Rcd 4152, 4160 ¶ 16 (2018).
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