Following an agreement with the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, the European Commission is to go ahead with its plan to build a third strategic satellite constellation to add to the existing Galileo and Copernicus networks. The network is called IRIS (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnection & Security by Satellites) and will be part-funded with €2.4bn of European Union cash, though the total cost of building the network is expected to be about €6bn.
The framework defined today is as fpllows:
– IRIS² will be a sovereign constellation, which imposes strict eligibility criteria and security requirements.
– IRIS² will be a constellation focused on government services, including defence applications.
– IRIS² will provide connectivity to the whole of Europe, including areas that do not currently benefit from broadband Internet, as well as to the whole of Africa, using the constellation’s North-South orbits.
– IRIS² will be a “new space” constellation the European way, integrating the know-how of the major European space industries – but also the dynamism of our start-ups, who will build 30% of the infrastructure.
– IRIS² will be a constellation at the cutting edge of technology, to give Europe a lead, for example in quantum encryption. It will be a vector of innovation.
– IRIS² will be a multi-orbit constellation, capable of creating synergies with our existing Galileo and Copernicus constellations. The objective here is to reduce the risk of space congestion.
European Parliament and the Council have supported this initiative to create Europe’s third pillar in space. After satellite positioning and earth observation, Europe will now have a secure European connectivity infrastructure.
“Secure and efficient connectivity will play a key role in Europe’s digital transformation and make us more competitive”, said EU digital chief Margrethe Vestager.
“Through this programme, the EU will be at the forefront of secure satellite communications.”
“IRIS² establishes space as a vector of our European autonomy, a vector of connectivity and resilience. It heightens Europe’s role as a true space power”, Internal Market Commissioner and the real driver of the initiative, Thierry Breton, wrote in a LinkedIn post.
Allowing the private sector to facilitate the rollout of high-speed broadband to “dead zones” that currently lack connectivity is also listed as a critical goal of the project.
“IRIS² will provide connectivity to the whole of Europe”, said Breton, “including areas that do not currently benefit from broadband Internet, as well as to the whole of Africa, using the constellation’s North-South orbits.”
Inspired by Iris, goddess of Greek mythology, messenger of the gods to humans… Iris² will bring secure European connectivity to all!
AST SpaceMobile, the company building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by standard mobile phones, announced today that it had successfully completed deployment of the communications array for its test satellite, BlueWalker 3 (“BW3”), in orbit.
BW3 is the largest-ever commercial communications array deployed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and is designed to communicate directly with cellular devices via 5G frequencies (which have yet to be standardized by ITU-R in M.1036 revision 6).
The satellite spans 693 square feet in size, a design feature critical to support a space-based cellular broadband network. The satellite is expected to have a field of view of over 300,000 square miles on the surface of the Earth.
The unfolding of BW3 was made possible by years of R&D, testing and operational preparation. AST SpaceMobile has a portfolio of more than 2,400 patent and patent-pending claims supporting its space-based cellular broadband technology. Additional details on the BlueWalker 3 mission can be seen in this video.
“Every person should have the right to access cellular broadband, regardless of where they live or work. Our goal is to close the connectivity gaps that negatively impact billions of lives around the world,” said Abel Avellan, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AST SpaceMobile. “The successful unfolding of BlueWalker 3 is a major step forward for our patented space-based cellular broadband technology and paves the way for the ongoing production of our BlueBird satellites.”
AST SpaceMobile has agreements and understandings with mobile network operators (“MNOs”) globally that have over 1.8 billion existing subscribers, including a mutual exclusivity with Vodafone in 24 countries. Interconnecting with AST SpaceMobile’s planned network will allow MNOs, including Vodafone Group, Rakuten Mobile, AT&T, Bell Canada, MTN Group, Orange, Telefonica, Etisalat, Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison, Smart Communications, Globe Telecom, Millicom, Smartfren, Telecom Argentina, Telstra, Africell, Liberty Latin America and others, the ability to offer extended cellular broadband coverage to their customers who live, work and travel in areas with poor or non-existent cell coverage, with the goal of eliminating dead zones with cellular broadband from space.
“We want to close coverage gaps in our markets, particularly in territories where terrain makes it extremely challenging to reach with a traditional ground-based network. Our partnership with AST SpaceMobile – connecting satellite directly to conventional mobile devices – will help in our efforts to close the digital divide,” said Luke Ibbetson, Head of Group R&D, Vodafone and an AST SpaceMobile director.
Tareq Amin, CEO of Rakuten Mobile and Rakuten Symphony and an AST SpaceMobile director, added “Our mission is to democratize access to mobile connectivity: That is why we are so excited about the potential of AST SpaceMobile to support disaster-readiness and meet our goal of 100% geographical coverage to our customers in Japan. I look forward not only to testing BW3 on our world-leading cloud-native network in Japan, but also working with AST SpaceMobile on integrating our virtualized radio network technology to help bring connectivity to the world.”
Chris Sambar, President – Network, AT&T, added “We’re excited to see AST SpaceMobile reach this significant milestone. AT&T’s core mission is connecting people to greater possibilities on the largest wireless network in America. Working with AST SpaceMobile, we believe there is a future opportunity to even further extend our network reach including to otherwise remote and off-grid locations.”
About AST SpaceMobile:
AST SpaceMobile is building the first and only global cellular broadband network in space to operate directly with standard, unmodified mobile devices based on our extensive IP and patent portfolio. Our engineers and space scientists are on a mission to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today’s five billion mobile subscribers and finally bring broadband to the billions who remain unconnected. For more information, follow AST SpaceMobile on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Watch this video for an overview of the SpaceMobile mission.
Apple finally confirmed a longstanding rumor that its new iPhones will be able to connect directly to LEO satellites to send and receive text messages. The feature, called Emergency SOS, will allow iPhone 14 models to message from remote locations not covered by traditional cellular infrastructure. Apple says the service launches in November and will be free to iPhone 14 buyers for two years. It didn’t specify what it might cost after that. Apple noted at Wednesday’s Cupertino, CA HQ event that its smartphone would need to be pointed directly at a satellite to work, and that even light foliage could make texts a few minutes to send.
Globalstar confirmed in a filing Wednesday that it will be operating the service through a partnership with Apple. Under that agreement, Apple will cover 95% of the capital expenditures made by Globalstar to build up its network, including new satellites, to provide the service. It will require Globalstar to allocate 85% of its “current and future network capacity” to support the service, which analyst Mike Crawford of B. Riley describes as “in one fell swoop converting an underutilized asset to a productive asset.”
The deal will include service fees and potential bonus payments, allowing Globalstar to project total revenue in a range of $185 million to $230 million for next year and $250 million to $310 million for 2026, which is expected to be the first full year that all of the company’s new satellites are operational. Even the low end of the near-term target would be a record high for the satellite-service provider, representing a gain of 44% above the annual revenue Globalstar has averaged for the past three years. Globalstar notably broke from the traditionally dry language of SEC filings to describe the deal as “transformational.”
Globalstar, currently offers SPOT X which provides 2-way satellite messaging so users can stay connected whenever you’re outside of cellular range, including direct communication with search & rescue services in case of a life-threatening emergency. SPOT X provides your own personal U.S. mobile number so others can message you directly from their mobile phone or SMS devices at any time.
Globalstar Satellite System:
Like “bent-pipes” or mirrors in the sky, the Globalstar satellites pick up signals from over 80% of the Earth’s surface. Our satellites transmit customer signals via CDMA technology to antennas at the appropriate terrestrial gateway, then the signals are routed through the local networks. This highly effective design offers the shortest connectivity latency and enables Globalstar to upgrade our system with the latest technology on the ground.
Globalstar’s new satellite constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and second generation ground infrastructure deliver exceptional quality, reliable coverage and high quality service to its customers.
Image Credit: Globalstar
The company’s patented satellite path and gateway diversity technologies allow customers to stay connected in the event of a single satellite failure by automatically transmitting to the next available satellite. This ensures uninterrupted communication in even the most suboptimal conditions like mountainous areas or urban canyons.
There is increasing competition for LEO satellite based internet access from smartphones:
- Starlink/SpaceX, announced a deal last month with T-Mobile to launch a text-based service by the end of next year. The Apple-Globalstar service might have cooled some enthusiasm. It is designed for emergency texting only, as opposed to providing a more typical smartphone experience in the wild.
- In addition to T-Mobile’s venture with SpaceX, the Globalstar rival Iridium announced in July that it has entered a development agreement with an unnamed company for a smartphone service that it expects to complete by the end of the year. Ric Prentiss of Raymond James wrote Thursday that the total addressable market “for satellite-smartphone off-the-grid connectivity is quite large with room for several initiatives globally.”
Harmful frequency interference poses a significant and growing threat to critical infrastructure and safety services used every day, from commercial aviation to energy distribution to satellite navigation systems.
Protecting this ecosystem is essential for the safe and satisfactory operation of the growing number of devices, applications and autonomous vehicles that rely every day on positioning and navigation systems on air, sea, and land.
One of the principal objectives of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its 193 Member States is to ensure interference-free operations of radiocommunication systems.
Article 45 of the ITU Constitution requires Member States “to take the steps required to prevent the transmission or circulation of false or deceptive distress, urgency, safety or identification signals, and to collaborate in locating and identifying stations under their jurisdiction transmitting such signals.”
Call for Action to mitigate interference with RNSS signals and receivers:
Following several incidences of harmful frequency interference brought to the attention of the ITU Radio Regulations Board, a recent Circular Letter urged ITU Member States to take measures to prevent interference with radio navigation satellite service (RNSS) signals and receivers.
The RNSS is an essential component of global critical infrastructure, providing a “safety-of-life” service that must be protected from interference. It is used in GPS (the US-based Global Positioning System) and other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) platforms, such as Europe’s GALILEO, Russia’s GLONASS and China’s BeiDou system.
Between 1 February 2021 and 31 January 2022, ITU received 329 reports of harmful interference or infringements of the Radio Regulations – the international treaty safeguarding the equitable and efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum.
Data collected by a major aircraft manufacturer shows that 10,843 radio-frequency interference events were detected globally over the same 12-month period, the circular notes. These figures were based on in-flight monitoring of GNSS receivers, which are standard onboard equipment for passenger or transport aircraft.
While most of the interference events occurred in the Middle East, several were also detected in the European, North American, African, and Asian regions.
The ITU Radiocommunication Bureau initially raised the issue of increasing interference to Member States at the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) in Sharm-El-Sheik, Egypt.
Since then, ITU has received reports about significant numbers of cases of harmful interference to the RNSS in the 1,559–1,610-megahertz (MHz) frequency band, also known as the “L1 band”.
What makes interference harmful:
Virtually all radio systems experience some interference. At very low levels, this can be considered acceptable or tolerable.
Harmful interference occurs when a radio system receives unwanted energy to an extent that inhibits the functioning of a radio-navigation service – such as those used onboard ships or aircraft – or seriously degrades, obstructs, or repeatedly interrupts any radiocommunication service that is operating in accordance with the Radio Regulations.
For example, harmful interference in the L1 band can disrupt the onboard receivers of aircraft, causing the degradation or total loss of communication for passenger, cargo, and humanitarian flights. In some cases, harmful interference in this frequency band can even cause RNSS receivers to provide misleading information to pilots, presenting a major safety risk.
Harmful interference with RNSS or GNSS signals – whether it is deliberate or inadvertent – constitutes a violation of the Radio Regulations, which state that “frequencies used for the safety and regularity of flight require absolute international protection from harmful interference and that administrations undertake to act immediately when their attention is drawn to any such harmful interference.”
One major source of such disruptions is unnecessary radio transmissions. But the interference prohibition also applies to the use of jamming devices, commonly referred to as “GNSS jammers,” “signal blockers” or “privacy jammers”.
Provision No. 15.1 of the Radio Regulations states that “all stations are forbidden to carry out unnecessary transmissions, or the transmission of superfluous signals, or the transmission of false or misleading signals.”
Handling harmful interference:
ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau receives hundreds of interference reports each year. But ITU – the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – is not alone in the battle to identify the sources of these potential cases and avert or eliminate resulting problems.
ITU collaborates with affected administrations and industry sectors, as well as with other UN agencies like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
While the Radiocommunication Bureau strives to deal with each report within 48 hours, the vital role of preventing harmful interference falls to governments around the world.
To mitigate this critical international issue, ITU asks its 193 Member States to take the following steps:
- Reinforce the resilience of navigation systems to interference by using technologies with multi-frequency/multi-system receivers and anti-jamming capabilities;
- Increase collaboration between radio regulatory, military, aviation, and law enforcement authorities;
- Reinforce civil-military coordination to address interference risks associated with RNSS testing and conflict zones;
- Retain essential conventional navigation infrastructure for contingency support in case of RNSS outages; and
- Develop mitigation techniques for loss of services.
During a live media event Thursday afternoon, T-Mobile’s Mike Sievert and SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced a new partnership that’s intended to connect T-Mobile sold phones to a new constellation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. The result, according to the companies, will be the elimination of all cellular dead zones around the U.S.
“It’s a lot like putting a cellular tower in the sky,” Sievert said, adding that the “vast majority” of T-Mobile’s existing phones would be supported by the service. Meaning, customers will not need to purchase new phones in order to connect them to Starlink’s second-generation satellites.
Sievert said that T-Mobile expects to offer the service for no additional charge on its more expensive plans. For customers on its cheaper plans, he said they may need to pay an additional monthly charge in order to be able to access satellite coverage.
Starlink’s satellites will use T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum to create a new network. Most phones used by the company’s customers will be compatible with the new service, which will start with texting services in a beta phase beginning by the end of next year. The companies did not say when it might launch commercially.
T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert at a joint news conference at Space X facility in Brownsville, TX
SpaceX has launched nearly 3,000 low-Earth-orbiting (LEO) Starlink satellites since 2019, handily outpacing rivals OneWeb and Amazon.com Inc’s Project Kuiper. Starlink recently suffered a major setback when the FCC rejected the company’s application for almost $900 million in government subsidies. The agency ruled that Starlink’s service likely wouldn’t be able to meet the agency’s speed and service requirements.
SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink satellites, the first of which are planned to launch on SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket whenever it is fully developed, will have larger antennae that will allow connectivity directly to mobile phones on the T-mobile network, Musk said.
Meanwhile, U.S telecom firms are in a race to build up the mid-band portion of their 5G networks to catch up with T-Mobile, which bagged a chunky 2.5 GHz of mid-band spectrum thanks to a buyout of rival Sprint.
Mid-band or C-Band has proven to be perfect for 5G, as it provides a good balance of capacity and coverage. T-Mobile said it aims to pursue voice and data coverage after the texting services beta phase.
Others in the Mix:
Satellite communications firm AST SpaceMobile Inc is also building a global cellular broadband network in space that will operate with mobile devices without the need for additional hardware. AST SpaceMobile is relying on SpaceX’s rockets to get its satellites into orbit, having pivoted away from a plan to use Russian rockets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Elon [Musk] and Mike [Sievert, of T-Mobile] helped the world focus attention on the huge market opportunity for SpaceMobile, the only planned space-based cellular broadband network,” AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan wrote on LinkedIn yesterday. “BlueWalker 3 … is scheduled for launch within weeks!”
Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T each have their own satellite plans: Verizon plans to use Amazon’s planned Project Kuiper satellites to connect its rural cell towers to the Internet, and AT&T is planning a similar setup with OneWeb’s own growing constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
In 2020, AT&T agreed to let startup AST SpaceMobile use its Band 5 spectrum to test transmissions from its BlueWalker 1 satellite to devices on the ground. AST SpaceMobile is now hoping to launch its new BlueWalker 3 prototype later next month. However, as reported by SpaceNews, supply chain issues delayed the launch of AST SpaceMobile’s first operational satellite by about six months, to late 2023.
AST SpaceMobile’s main rival, Lynk, already has one operational satellite in orbit for phone connections. As noted by Ars Technica, the company is hoping to receive FCC approval to offer satellite-to-phone services across 35 countries by the end of this year.
“Elon said it’s hard, and it’s only been done in the lab, but Lynk has done it in space already,” Lynk’s Charles Miller told the publication yesterday. “We’re the only company in the world that has done that.”
Lynk hasn’t yet announced an agreement with a major U.S. network operator, though it has agreements with a number of international operators. Lynk tested its services in the U.S. with Smith Bagley, a tiny wireless network operator offering services under the Cellular One brand in East Arizona.
“There are significant regulatory hurdles to clear, as the FCC is reviewing SpaceX’s request to launch a constellation of 30,000 Gen2 satellites, while other LEO proposals including Amazon’s Project Kuiper (with whom Verizon is collaborating) and AST SpaceMobile (financial backing from Vodafone and a commercial agreement with AT&T) are also working DC as well as international agencies to put some rules in place for this latest chapter of the Space Race,” Raymond James analysts wrote in a note to investors.
UPDATE: Apple iPhone 14 text messages via Globalstar LEO satellites starting Nov 2022:
UK backed satellite communications company OneWeb and U.S. based Intelsat have signed a global distribution partnership agreement to offer airlines a seamless inflight connectivity (IFC) solution with the best combination of performance, coverage and reliability on the market. The partnership enables Intelsat to distribute OneWeb’s ground-breaking low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite services to airlines worldwide, coupled with Intelsat’s extensive IFC experience and existing geo-stationary (GEO) satellite service. The result is a truly multi-orbit solution for the aviation community, leveraging the benefits of both networks.
By harnessing the power of multi-orbit capabilities, Intelsat will ensure airlines and their passengers are able to enjoy the best IFC, without compromise. Airlines and their passengers will no longer have to accept significant gaps in IFC coverage or capacity – even at busy hubs, across oceans and over polar routes. Intelsat will seamlessly manage connectivity, allowing passengers to remain connected no matter where they are. The companies expect the multi-orbit solution to be in service by 2024.
“This level of connectivity will enable airlines to maximise brand affiliation with passengers through all their onboard services – delivering a truly connected end-to-end passenger journey,” said Jeff Sare, Intelsat’s President, Commercial Aviation. “The hybrid service offering further allows the global airline community to plan their suite of next-generation onboard services with confidence – not only ensuring a future-proofed passenger inflight connectivity experience, but also the implementation of a connected airline digitalisation strategy.”
“This is a watershed moment for the inflight connectivity market, and we’re excited to work together with Intelsat to bring our multi-orbit solution to commercial aviation. We’re committed to delivering the most differentiated and innovative solution for airlines,” said Ben Griffin, OneWeb Vice President, Mobility Services. “We are proving that, through the power of partnership, a superior suite of multi-orbit capabilities can be offered to better serve the growing connectivity needs of the commercial aviation industry, delivering the highest value coupled with the lowest risk.”
Intelsat and OneWeb have previous history: in 2015, Intelsat engaged in a $500 million round of funding in the then satellite communications startup. Much has changed since that time, with both satellite providers subsequently filing for bankruptcy. OneWeb emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020, while Intelsat only formally emerged from its bankruptcy earlier in 2022. Meanwhile, the two partners are also apparently pursuing mergers with other companies.
From the Financial Times:
The UK government is set to become a minority shareholder in a listed French business, as France’s Eutelsat nears a deal to acquire OneWeb, the satellite internet company rescued from bankruptcy by Boris Johnson’s government. According to people involved, a deal will be announced as soon as Monday and involve a takeover of OneWeb by Eutelsat, which already owns a 24 per cent stake in the UK-based company.
Expecting heavy political scrutiny, the deal will be presented publicly as a merger of equals. Combining the two companies will bring together the UK, French and Chinese governments as well as Indian billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal as common shareholders in one of the world’s biggest satellite operators. Recommended The Big Read The corporate feud over satellites that pitted the west against China The French state owns a 20 per cent stake and China’s sovereign wealth fund owns 5 per cent in Eutelsat.
The UK has just under 18 per cent of OneWeb. After the deal, shareholders from both sides will be diluted. Paris-listed Eutelsat has a market value of €2.4bn and has roughly €3bn of net debt. In its most recent funding round, OneWeb was valued at $3.4bn. The deal values the UK government’s OneWeb stake at $600mn, two people with knowledge of the details said, which is $100mn more than it initially invested in 2020. Mittal, who has a 30 per cent stake in OneWeb, will be one of the largest shareholders in the combined group.
The UK will retain its special rights over OneWeb as part of the deal. Those rights include a veto over certain customers deemed undesirable for national security reasons as well as a say on supply chain and launch decisions. One UK official said that Eutelsat would seek a secondary listing on the London market. By merging with Eutelsat, OneWeb’s backers will have support for the huge amount of funding still required to deliver the company’s second generation satellite network.
The greater financial firepower will be needed in the competition with Elon Musk’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper for low earth orbit, the new frontier for commercial space. OneWeb, which has 428 satellites in orbit, was a pioneer in the field but its current technology is acknowledged to be out of date. Musk’s Starlink has more than 2,000 satellites in orbit with newer technology. “The deal recognises that this is a highly competitive global race. It will allow the two companies to compete with SpaceX and emerging rivals from China as well. This is a good story for Britain,” the official said. Falling launch costs and cheaper satellites are enticing hundreds of private companies into a global space market estimated to be worth $1tn by 2040. The UK’s initial investment into OneWeb in 2020 was highly controversial and championed by Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings.
The government ignored advice from senior officials when it decided to invest $500mn alongside $500mn from Bharti Global, part of the conglomerate controlled by Mittal, to bring the business out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. OneWeb collapsed in 2020 after its main backer SoftBank refused to fund yet another financing round, in a sign of significant cash funding requirements needed to take low earth orbit constellations to commercial operation. SoftBank still remains a substantial shareholder in OneWeb. Since its bankruptcy the group has raised $2.7bn. Eutelsat paid $550mn for a 24 per cent stake in OneWeb last year. Rothschild is working with Eutelsat, while Barclays is advising OneWeb, people close to the deal said. Bloomberg earlier reported on this deal.
Musk’s Starlink fleet of more than 1,500 satellites launched in the past three years by SpaceX has created an unprecedented challenge for rivals, leading to a wave of consolidation in the sector.
Last year, Viasat Inc. agreed to purchase Inmarsat Group Holdings Ltd. for $4 billion, creating the world’s biggest geostationary satellite company. Eutelsat itself rejected a takeover bid from billionaire Patrick Drahi that valued it at 2.8 billion euros.
OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy in 2020 in bailout by the UK with the help of Mittal, signaling a more interventionist industrial strategy by the government after Brexit. A deal with Eutelsat would be a rare example of a UK and a French company merging, and one that involves two state-backed companies shows how much the two governments are getting involved in the telecommunications industry.
The company was established in 2012 to build a constellation of small satellites in low-earth orbit, beaming internet connections to isolated places. OneWeb raised $3.4 billion from SoftBank Group Corp., Airbus SE and other big names before collapsing when lead investors pulled their money at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday authorized Elon Musk’s SpaceX to use its Starlink satellite internet network with moving vehicles, green-lighting the company’s plan to expand broadband offerings to commercial airlines, shipping vessels and trucks.
Starlink, a fast-growing constellation of internet-beaming satellites in orbit, has long sought to grow its customer base from individual broadband users in rural, internet-poor locations to enterprise customers in the potentially lucrative automotive, shipping and airline sectors.
“Authorizing a new class of terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move,” the FCC said in its authorization published Thursday, echoing plans outlined in SpaceX’s request for the approval early last year.
SpaceX has steadily launched some 2,700 Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit since 2019 and has amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers, including many who pay $110 a month for broadband internet using $599 self-install terminal kits.
The Hawthorne, California-based space company has focused heavily in recent years on courting airlines for in-flight WiFi via Starlink backhaul, having inked its first such deals in recent months with Hawaiian Airlines and semi-private jet service JSX. Delta Airlines has reportedly run some tests with SpaceX/Starlink.
“We’re obsessive about the passenger experience,” Jonathan Hofeller, Starlink’s commercial sales chief, said at an aviation conference earlier this month. “We’re going to be on planes here very shortly, so hopefully passengers are wowed by the experience.”
SpaceX’s proposal for ESIMs includes spectrum in the range of 12.2-12.7GHz – a slice of spectrum generally known as the 12GHz band. RS Access (a company funded by Michael Dell’s investment firm) and Dish Network opposed SpaceX’s proposed use of the 12GHz band based on interference concerns, but the FCC is still analyzing it and has yet to make a final ruling.
However, the FCC has concluded that authority of operations in the 12GHz band serves the public interest, as it will expand broadband into unserved and underserved areas. As a condition of the FCC’s approval, ESIM operations of SpaceX “must accept any interference received from both current and future services authorized” in the 12GHz band “and must not cause harmful interference to any authorized service, whether licensed or not,” the FCC’s Sullivan explained.
The FCC’s CONCLUSION (from the order):
We conclude that grant of SpaceX’s requests for ESIM authorizations and Kepler’s request for ESV authority, including for operations in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band, as conditioned and set forth herein, will serve the public interest by enabling SpaceX and Kepler to offer expanded broadband capabilities and serve unserved and underserved areas.
“Authorizing a new class of terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a US port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” the FCC’s international bureau chief, Tom Sullivan, wrote in the order (PDF).
SpaceX, under an earlier experimental FCC license, has been testing aircraft-tailored Starlink terminals on Gulfstream jets and U.S. military aircraft.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has previously said that the types of vehicles Starlink was expected to be used with pursuant to Thursday’s authorization were aircraft, ships, large trucks and RVs. Musk, also the CEO of electric car maker Tesla Inc, had said he didn’t see “connecting Tesla cars to Starlink, as our terminal is much too big.”
Photo credit: Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
FCC clearance will enable Starlink to pursue connectivity agreements more aggressively in markets such as aviation, which is already covered by competitors such as Viasat and Hughes Network Systems. Those companies rely on a much smaller number of geosynchronous (GEO) satellites sitting at higher orbits than Starlink’s LEO constellation. However, Hughes Network Systems is also in the LEO business through its partnership with and investment in OneWeb.
Competition in the low-Earth orbiting satellite internet sector is fierce between SpaceX, satellite operator OneWeb, and Jeff Bezos’s Kuiper project, a unit of e-commerce giant Amazon.com which is planning to launch the first prototype satellites of its own broadband network later this year.
There are currently 4,852 operating satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) from some eighty nations, though roughly half are U.S. commercial and government/military satellites. They are essential for everything from nuclear command and control, climate observation to GPS, and the internet, streaming video, and ATMs. Moreover, an already crowded earth orbit is getting worse. The private sector is driving the new space economy enabled by new technologies to miniaturize satellites, like the aforementioned cubesats. Google and Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone plan to launch some 50,000 cubesats in this decade.
Currently, Starlink (owned by SpaceX) has approximately 2,200 small satellites in LEO and working. That’s about half of SpaceX’s planned first-generation network of 4,408 Starlink satellites.
The 4,400 satellites will be spread among five different orbital “shells” at different altitudes and inclinations. SpaceX, founded and led by Elon Musk, has stated it eventually intends to launch as many as 42,000 satellites.
An explosion of private-sector space business—from satellite launches and space shuttles to the quest for mining asteroids and planets—has blurred the line between civilian and military activities, racing ahead of any duly considered global regulation. Dealing with space junk, however, is the most promising area for cooperation. The threat of space debris to all nations’ vital economic and national security assets in space—democracy-autocracy polarization notwithstanding—would, like climate change, seem such an instance.
Last November, Russia shot a missile into space to test its anti-satellite technology to see if it could destroy or incapacitate one of its own orbiting satellites. It did. The U.S. State Department says that missile smashed the Russian spacecraft into 1,500 large pieces and hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, which resulted in a dangerous cloud of debris. That forced the crew aboard the ISS (International Space Station) to take shelter in their escape pops, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The resulting debris passed close to the ISS, but didn’t hit it. The crew was fine, but the incident highlighted just how big of a problem space debris can be.
In mid April, U.S. vice president Kamala Harris said the US would not conduct tests like this and called on other countries to do the same, but that promise won’t reduce the space junk already out there. Missile tests are just one way that space debris is created. Sometimes used rockets and old satellites are intentionally left up in space threatening to hit satellites or space rockets. And the more of it that space junk floating around, the harder it will be to avoid.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network is the premier mechanism for monitoring space junk. Russia has some orbital monitoring capacity, but few other states do. Moreover, in addition to its unrivaled space surveillance capacity to monitor debris, the United States already has Spacing Sharing Agreements with over 100 nations to provide data and notifications to avoid collisions. These are important global public goods that can provide diplomatic leverage for shaping space rules and standards on space debris. The United States had given a heads-up to China about such risks during the Obama administration, according to well-placed sources.
In addition, private sector firms and startups in Japan, the United States, and Europe are devising ways to remove space debris, in what appears to be a coming sector of the space economy. The U.S. Space Force’s technology arm is already exploring the possibility of funding private firms to remove space debris. There are a range of methods of space junk removal being developed from satellite magnets, nets, harpoons, and even spider-like webs. These are all likely future contractors, bearing the risks of research and development.
International cooperation will be needed to effectively clean up space junk. There are only a handful of high-performance space-faring states—the United States, Russia, China, the EU, Japan, and India. As discussed above, the United States is well-positioned as first among equals to launch an ad hoc public-private coalition of space powers partnering with the private sector to pool resources and (non-national security-sensitive) capabilities to better monitor and clean up space debris and seek mutually acceptable codes of conduct and rules for such activities.
Robert Manning and Peter Wilson suggest the methods and procedures should be based an open architecture with adherence to the principle of form follows function: open to emerging space powers—South Korea, Brazil, Israel, and others.
Satellite internet companies making news in recent days include Telesat, Globalstar, Intelsat, EchoStar, and Gogo:
- Telesat reduced the size of its planned low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation for global Internet services. The company still plans to spend a total of $5 billion on its Lightspeed effort, but now plans to operate a total of 188 satellites instead of 298.
- Globalstar signed a term sheet with a “large, global customer” to start deploying some of its spectrum for terrestrial use in the U.S. and elsewhere. “We continue to believe Apple is the most probable wholesale satellite capacity customer but await further clues, with iPhone 14 release later this year a potential catalyst,” the financial analysts at B. Riley Securities wrote in a note to investors.
- Intelsat, having recently emerged from bankruptcy, installed a number of new executives from defense contractor Raytheon, including CEO David Wajsgras. The company remains locked in a contentious legal battle with SES over proceeds from the FCC’s massive C-band auction for 5G spectrum.
- EchoStar announced that the launch of its planned Jupiter 3 satellite will be delayed until next year. A number of other satellite companies have reported similar problems amid a tightening supply of satellite launch providers. EchoStar also has a relatively new CEO in Hamid Akhavan. Further, Anders Johnson, who was leading the integration of EchoStar’s operations with 5G, is leaving the company. However, the financial analysts at Raymond James believe that Johnson’s departure doesn’t necessarily signal a step back from EchoStar’s broader plans to integrate its satellites into terrestrial networks. “We think hybrid solutions will play a major role in EchoStar’s future, including geostationary (GEO), LEO and terrestrial 5G connections, and we think S-band [spectrum] will also play a role,” they wrote. Finally, Gogo announced it’s still on track to deploy a terrestrial 5G network in the US by the end of this year. The network will beam Internet connections to airplanes.
- Gogo executives reiterated their interest in adding LEO capabilities to the company’s overall networking offerings, though they stopped short of making any firm announcements.
These developments help show that a wide range of companies – beyond big-name satellite internet companies like SpaceX and Amazon Kuiper – are heavily investing in space communications. It’s worth noting that an array of big name telecom companies have been inking agreements with satellite operators.
For example, AT&T has an agreement with LEO operator OneWeb; Verizon has a similar deal with LEO hopeful Amazon; and Vodafone is working with upstart AST SpaceMobile to connect regular, existing smartphones to satellites.