You Are Now Accepting a Very Long-Distance Call: FCC to Propose Regulatory Framework for Satellite-Terrestrial Connectivity

3 min

New opportunities for wireless communication may be coming, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers a new regulatory regime allowing satellite connectivity by consumer handsets on terrestrial networks. The draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, “Single Network Future: Supplemental Coverage from Space,” likely to be adopted at the FCC’s March 16 meeting, proposes to allow mobile service providers and satellite operators to work together to expand mobile coverage in remote, unserved, and underserved areas. The FCC is the first regulator to propose rules to allow what some term “cell towers in the sky,” something that will support emergency communications, address the digital divide, and incentivize innovation in satellite and wireless technologies.

Recent industry announcements related to direct-to-handset satellite communications seem to have given the FCC the push it needed to act. In August 2022, SpaceX and T-Mobile announced plans for the second generation of Starlink satellites to provide connectivity directly to existing wireless phones, making it possible to offer service without the need for a cell tower. Google responded by promising that the next version of its Android phone, the Android 14, also would provide satellite connectivity. And in November 2022, Apple and Globalstar announced a service that uses Globalstar’s licensed satellite spectrum to provide emergency messaging when Wi-Fi and cellular service are not available. Other companies are working on similar service offerings.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel remarked in a recent keynote address to the Mobile World Congress that “with the growing interest in the possibilities of convergence of satellite and terrestrial services, an ad-hoc, case-by-case [regulatory] approach to these new ventures is not enough.” She expressed the need for “clear rules” in order to facilitate such ventures, noting, “bringing satellite and terrestrial wireless capabilities together can accomplish what neither network can do on its own.”

The proposed rules would allow mobile-satellite service operations—including both space-to-Earth and Earth-to-space—in certain terrestrial bands that have no primary, federal, or non-federal satellite allocations, permitting coverage from space to the subscribers of the terrestrial networks. The FCC is focusing on frequencies where a single terrestrial licensee holds all of the co-channel licenses on the relevant band in a geographically independent area (GIA): 614-652, 663-758, 775-788, 805-806, 824-849, 869-894, 1850-1915, 1930-1995, 2305-2320, and 2345-2360 MHz. Terrestrial licensees in these bands would be able to enter into spectrum leasing arrangements with satellite operators to provide this Supplemental Coverage from Space in unserved and underserved areas. They would need to obtain blanket earth station licenses under the FCC’s satellite rules for the handsets that would operate with satellites on their networks. NGSO satellite operators would be able to amend their licenses to provide service on the allowable terrestrial frequencies upon a showing that they’ve entered into cooperative lease agreements with a mobile carrier holding an appropriate license.

There will be a myriad of technical challenges in making Supplemental Coverage from Space a reality. The FCC has suggested, for example, applying the existing out-of-band emission limits for the relevant band of operation for satellite transmitters providing space-to-Earth transmissions in order to protect against harmful interference to adjacent band licensees. Given how novel these issues are, the FCC likely will take several years to work out the specific technical and operational rules that will be necessary to enact this plan. Hundreds of questions have been put out for public comment. Key issues include how to protect incumbent users—whether on the terrestrial frequency or in adjacent bands—and how to ensure continuity in the provision of essential services such as 911 and emergency alerts. The FCC also must work with countries such as Canada and Mexico to ensure that the new satellite transmissions would not interfere with radio communications in those countries.

Comments will be due several months after the publication in the Federal Register of the adoption of the final Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, likely in May or June.