How to Break Orbit II: Challenges in the Connected Space Race
With unprecedented investment aimed at closing the digital divide, companies are racing to innovate to ensure that Americans have access to 21st century connectivity. But for some Americans, conventional means of connectivity, such as fiber, are either prohibitively expensive or geographically impractical. A number of companies are moving beyond traditional thinking about broadband deployment to both unserved and underserved regions. As discussed in a previous post, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites are becoming a viable option, with the potential to redefine connectivity in ways that could have a profound impact on our online world. Doing so will require a change in our understanding of how we utilize stellar resources given increasingly crowded orbits.
SpaceX is currently leading the charge with a deployed constellation of more than 3,400 LEO Starlink satellites, with more on the way. The company has proved that not only does the product work, but that the satellites create strong use cases and opportunities. Recently, T-Mobile and SpaceX announced a historic partnership that would leverage Starlink satellites to help connect T-Mobile customers who are out of range of T-Mobile’s terrestrial towers. This highlights the massive potential and opportunity this emerging technology can provide. However, as it currently stands, the regulatory landscape surrounding these new satellite broadband entrants is murky and uncertain.
One of the biggest concerns facing LEO entrants is space sustainability and how to manage and mitigate thousands of satellites that, once deployed, are inaccessible. SpaceX is currently able to deploy around 50 satellites per launch and has approval to deploy an additional 12,000 satellites for its first-generation constellation, with the goal of launching an additional 30,000 satellites as part of its second-generation constellation, “Gen2.” In a recent filing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), SpaceX sought approval for its launches to utilize two rockets—the older Falcon 9 model and the new and powerful Starship. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has raised concerns that doubling the number of tracked objects in orbit will increase the risk of collision events and limit the ability to track and avoid other space assets. Additionally, these objects may interfere with earth-observing satellites, which could result in challenges to weather detection and the ability to detect potential asteroid impacts.
Launching these satellites also entails an element of risk that may impede constellation deployment. On Sept. 16, 2022, reporters announced that SpaceX lost nearly 40 satellites of a new constellation due to a coronal mass ejection. The satellites were unable to use on-board thrusters to get to the correct orbital altitude; instead, they burned up in earth’s atmosphere. While an obvious setback for SpaceX, the incident emphasizes the importance of safely removing nonfunctional satellites from LEO orbits. Future launches and providers will need to be able to mitigate such congestion to protect orbits from debris.
Further, the impact of large-scale satellite deployments on competition and interference pose other key challenges. Starlink’s biggest competitors are worried that this massive deployment would make competition difficult in space. While new and emerging technology can drive down prices and improve service, the concern is that existing launch plans may preclude new entrants due to questions of space sustainability and interference.
Amazon, among others, has noted that the FCC “should proceed carefully to ensure that SpaceX’s deployment does not come at the expense of competition and innovation from other emerging” LEO providers. The massive increase in satellites in earth’s orbit—five times more than currently in orbit—will make entry into the market difficult, which is compounded by the possibility of failed satellites becoming stuck in orbit for years or decades. This would make it prohibitive or even dangerous for new entrants to deploy their own constellations. LEO satellites have transformative potential, but policies that entrench one company may squeeze out competition before new entrants can even launch.
Both SpaceX and Amazon agree on the importance of spectrum sharing, and empowering the FCC to process licenses and promulgate rules when necessary to facilitate robust competition in the marketplace. Filings by competitors simply ask SpaceX to “acknowledge the impact in their proposed Gen2 system” and offer “reasonable concession to address these impacts.” Smaller, piecemeal launches and information sharing to resolve spectrum interference concerns would alleviate many concerns and help avoid issues in the future.
The FCC should not prevent SpaceX from deploying its second-generation constellation. On the contrary, anyone in support of LEO technologies recognizes the potential the Gen2 constellations can provide. But by taking a careful approach, both Starlink, regulators and competitors may provide an opportunity to identify and resolve any concerns that may arise.
The Path Forward
As the technology evolves and a growing number of satellite constellations are deployed, standards should be required for all market entrants. There are a number of approaches that stakeholders can take to ensure that there is a strong and robust future for satellite broadband. Current and potential providers should collaborate through a multi-stakeholder process to address the novel issues this new technology presents. Recently, Amazon and Telesat announced that they finalized an agreement to ensure that their planned satellites will not interfere with each other. As an alternative to FCC regulation, these types of agreements are the best way to protect competition in this emergent marketplace and allow additional entrants to function and provide service without interference. NASA has called for national and international long-term planning for both conjunction and interference mitigation, including developing “best practices.”
On the other hand, the FCC has the ability to engage in a forward-looking proceeding to ensure longevity of LEO constellations and mitigate many of the concerns raised. The FCC has already initiated a notice of proposed rulemaking in December to discuss spectrum-sharing requirements, but it may also engage in space sustainability, orbits and mitigation of impediments to new entrants. Even-handed, technology-neutral policies would help ensure that LEO satellites connect millions who otherwise would remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. The FCC should not be in the business of picking winners and losers, and should only intervene when necessary to guarantee a competitive landscape for new satellite entrants. Future rules should concentrate on real-time impacts as they occur, and not rely on overly prescriptive standards. For example, it would be unreasonable for a carrier to have to prove that it will never interfere with another carrier; instead it should be tasked with monitoring evidence of interference and demonstrating mitigation strategies.
The United States is in a position to be the gold standard for space sustainability and deployment of LEO broadband satellite constellations. If practical performance-based standards are introduced, there is opportunity for real innovation and competition in the LEO space. The goal should be to ensure the future of an emerging industry that has a robust and competitive landscape while addressing interference, space sustainability and other concerns. Policymakers must work to ensure the longevity and success of this transformative new technology while ensuring the market will be open to future entrants as well.