The new star wars over space satellites

By Peggy Hollinger,
Published by The Marcet, 3 January 2024

Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects one of her favourite stories.

There is a battle brewing in space. In one corner you have the billionaires building giant satellite broadband constellations in low earth orbit (LEO) — Elon Musk with SpaceX’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos with Project Kuiper. 

In the other corner stand the traditional fixed satellite operators such as ViaSat and SES — but also a number of nations increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which the new space economy is evolving. In other words, with the dominance of US mega constellations in a strategic region of space.

The first shots were fired in late November at the World Radiocommunications Conference in Dubai. Every four years, global regulators and industry meet to review international regulations on the use of radio spectrum. 

For those who have only a vague idea of what spectrum is, it is the name for the radio airwaves that carry data wirelessly to enable a vast range of services — from television broadcasting to WiFi, navigation to mobile communications.

Most people are inclined to think that the airwaves have infinite capacity to connect us. But, like water, spectrum is a finite resource and much of it has already been allocated to specific uses. So operators have to transmit signals on shared bands of spectrum — on the promise that their transmissions will not interfere with others. 

Now SpaceX, Kuiper and others operating in LEO are pushing to loosen rules designed to prevent their signals from interfering with those of traditional operators in higher orbits. These rules impose caps on the power used to transmit signals, which facilitate spectrum sharing but also constrain the amount of data they can send. LEO operators say the rules, designed 25 years ago, are outdated. They argue that new technology would allow higher power levels — and greater capacity for customers — without degrading networks of the traditional fixed satellite systems operating in geostationary orbit, at altitudes of 36,000km.

It is perhaps not a surprise that a proposal to make LEO constellations more competitive drew protests from geo operators. Some, such as US-based Hughes Network Systems, have admitted they are already losing customers to Starlink.

What was surprising, however, was the strong opposition from countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Japan and others.

Hazem Moakkit, head of spectrum strategy at geo operator Intelsat, says the proposal has become “a new battle front” for wider concerns: the dominance of the mega constellations; the implications for equitable access to spectrum and orbits; and finally their impact on national investments in sovereign geo capacity. “Administrations came together and were adamant they did not want the rules changed. Some objected for competitive reasons, some for security reasons and some for sustainability reasons,” he told me. “But they all came together.”

Katherine Gizinski, chief executive of spectrum consultancy River Advisers, adds: “It is a question of how spectrum is shared and the amount of interference that can be tolerated.”

Some may even have been hoping to “hem in” and slow down the growth of mega constellations, says Tim Farrar of consultancy TMF. Starlink in just four years has launched about 5,000 satellites, with thousands more planned. Kuiper has yet to put operational satellites into orbit. But it has booked a record number of rocket launches to ensure speedy deployment from next year. 

Proposals to make rule changes at the next WRC in 2027 were defeated, but the principle has not been entirely quashed. Technical studies of how power limits might be revised have been allowed. 

Although the compromise ruled out any regulatory consequences from these studies, the fortress has been breached. The rules on power limits were developed when the competitive landscape and the technology driving it were radically different. They are almost certainly overdue for review. If a technical study demonstrates a viable new approach, it may be hard to argue the status quo should be preserved. 

Should rules be changed, however, it is imperative that this is not at the expense of secure and equitable access to both space and spectrum. Low earth orbit may be the future of space-based connectivity. But  many countries remain worried about how this technology may affect their own sovereign systems and their ability to access spectrum in future. In the meantime, they should not find that the richest companies and countries have created a framework that lets them exploit the best, leaving little behind for the rest.

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