FCC approves 147-satellite plan without adding conditions requested by SpaceX.
The Federal Communications Commission today gave Boeing permission to launch 147 broadband satellites. While that’s a fraction of the number of satellites approved for other low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, the decision allows Boeing to compete in the emerging LEO satellite broadband market.
“As detailed in its FCC application, Boeing plans to provide broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and professional users in the United States and globally,” the FCC said in its announcement approving the license.
The 147 planned satellites include 132 low-Earth satellites orbiting at an altitude of 1,056 km and 15 “highly inclined satellites” that would orbit at altitudes between 27,355 and 44,221 km. The FCC authorized Boeing to conduct space-to-Earth transmissions in the 37.5–42.0 GHz frequency bands and Earth-to-space operations in the 47.2–50.2 GHz and 50.4–51.4 GHz bands.
In its 2017 application to the FCC, Boeing said its plan to operate satellites at both high and low altitudes is “a cost-effective means to achieve global coverage.” The combination will “provide high-speed broadband communications to consumers wherever they are located, while also providing the benefits of very low latency through LEO communications,” Boeing said. Boeing previously proposed a constellation that could have included nearly 3,000 satellites, but it scaled back its plans.
SpaceX claimed interference
Starlink operator SpaceX claimed that Boeing’s plan would cause interference, but the FCC rejected SpaceX’s argument that Boeing should face additional requirements.
“SpaceX raises concerns about interference from Boeing’s uplink beams to its highly inclined satellites and recommends that Boeing utilize higher gain antennas on those satellites with corresponding reductions in uplink power levels. We decline to adopt SpaceX’s proposal,” the FCC said.
The FCC previously declined to adopt additional requirements to prevent interference in its rules for non-geostationary satellites, instead opting for a “framework for co-existence” that satellite companies would use to cooperate. That earlier decision factored into the FCC’s ruling against SpaceX’s request:
SpaceX provides no basis on this particular issue to warrant departure from the established framework already in place to address concerns regarding interference between NGSO [non-geostationary satellite orbit] systems, and to adopt a special condition on this grant. Pursuant to our rules, NGSO FSS [fixed satellite service] operators must coordinate in good faith the use of commonly authorized frequencies. When there is potential for interference, the parties involved must agree on measures to eliminate this interference (i.e., satellite diversity) or, in the absence of an agreement, be subject to certain default procedures. Accordingly, NGSO FSS operators must agree on measures to eliminate the risk of interference by taking into account each system’s power levels and design.
Objections from rival satellite operators are common in these proceedings. SpaceX recently blasted Amazon for objecting to Starlink plans, saying that Amazon was using an “obstructionist tactic” to delay a competitor. Amazon pointed out that SpaceX itself “routinely raises concerns with respect to its competitors’ currently filed plans, including with respect to interference.”
Boeing in no rush to launch
Boeing doesn’t seem to be in any rush to launch satellites despite being far behind SpaceX, which has already deployed over 1,700 satellites and has FCC permission to launch nearly 12,000. Amazon has FCC permission to launch 3,236 satellites and plans to launch two test satellites in late 2022. OneWeb has permission for 2,000 satellites and has launched 358.
FCC rules require satellite licensees to launch 50 percent of licensed satellites within six years and the remainder within nine years. The FCC said that Boeing asked for a waiver of that requirement:
Boeing seeks to launch the first five highly inclined satellites within six years after license grant, which, Boeing argues, would satisfy the (now-eliminated) domestic geographic coverage requirement in the commission’s rules. Boeing seeks to launch the remaining ten highly inclined satellites and 132 LEO satellites within 12 years of grant, which, Boeing argues, would satisfy the (now-eliminated) international coverage requirement in the commission’s rules. Boeing states that its revised milestone schedule would allow it to introduce service into new geographic regions on a phased basis.
Boeing’s waiver request denied
The FCC rejected this request, saying that “Boeing has not provided sufficient grounds for a waiver of the commission’s milestone requirements.” The FCC said granting the waiver “would undermine the purpose of the rule,” adding:
In particular, Boeing does not explain why it cannot deploy a greater number of satellites, a figure closer to 50 percent, within the requisite timeframe in order to prevent [spectrum] warehousing concerns. Moreover, Boeing’s representation at this point that it would launch and deploy the full system in 12 years, rather than the nine required by our rule is not supported by sufficient justification for us to grant waiver at this time, again, noting the underlying concern of spectrum warehousing. Accordingly, we deny Boeing’s waiver request at this time.
While this means the 147-satellite constellation is still subject to the 6- and 9-year launch requirements, the FCC said Boeing can resubmit the request in the future “when it will have more information about the progress of the construction and launching of its satellites and will therefore be in a better position to assess the need and justification for a waiver.”
The FCC imposed a few standard conditions on Boeing’s license. Boeing will have to submit a final orbital debris mitigation plan and get FCC approval of that final proposal. Also, “Boeing must coordinate physical operations of spacecraft with any operator using similar orbits, for the purpose of eliminating collision risk and minimizing operational impacts,” the FCC said.
“Advanced satellite broadband services have an important role to play in connecting hard-to-serve communities. We are committed to a careful and detailed review of all such applications,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said regarding today’s approval.