Second group of O3b satellites launch on a Europeanized Soyuz. Credit: Arianespace

Updated Jan. 24 at 10:58 a.m. EDT

PARIS — British regulators on Jan. 21 approved a licensing regime for maritime and aeronautical use of Ka-band satellite frequencies, saying licenses would be processed starting in February.

Making good on a promise that regulatory red tape would not overly burden the business plans of U.K.-based operators including Inmarsat and O3b Networks, Britain’s Ofcom telecommunications regulatory authority said it expected commercial use of Ka-band on ships and planes to begin this year.

But with the concurrence of several satellite telecommunications service providers, satellite operators and industry associations, the Ofcom decision was restricted to systems using geostationary-operating satellites.

O3b, whose constellation is in low Earth orbit, is not covered by the new licensing regime and will have to await fresh regulations that Ofcom said are being crafted.

“Ofcom is currently supporting the development of a European regulatory framework for [mobile broadband satellite systems] operating with [non-geostationary-orbit] satellites,” Ofcom said in its decision. “Until the technical and regulatory conditions for [non-geostationary mobile broadband systems] are agreed, it would be premature to consider the authorization of these terminals in the U.K.”

Ofcom said satellite operators including Avanti and Inmarsat, satellite services provider Arqiva and industry organizations including the European Satellite Operators Association, Global VSAT Forum and UK Space, agreed that the ruling should be limited to geostationary-orbiting satellites.

For aeronautical uses, licenses for Ka-band satellite services will be awarded in the form of a variation of the Aircraft Radio license now issued, on Ofcom’s behalf, by Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority. Maritime licenses will be issued by a modification of the current Ship Radio license, the agency said.

In both cases, license modifications will not be subject to additional fees, Ofcom said.

Inmarsat of London and O3b, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, have already launched mobile Ka-band satellites and are expected to be in a position to provide commercial service by late this year or early in 2015. Both companies have more satellites scheduled for launch this year as they fill out their global constellations.

Ofcom’s move follows an agreement by the 48-nation Conference of European Posts and Telecommunications (CEPT) to allow Ka-band to be treated similarly to Ku-band terminals as “fixed” assets even when they are aboard moving platforms such as ships and planes. 

Inmarsat and O3b need approvals from each nation in which they plan to operate — and for aeronautical applications, from each nation they overfly. Ofcom’s decision will apply nowhere outside the United Kingdom and British Crown Dependencies, but the decision could act as an incentive for other governments to act quickly.

“Ofcom is also working with international telecoms authorities to promote the use of Earth station technology globally,” the agency said in a statement announcing the new regulatory policy.

Samsung Electronics, which was among 16 organizations that responded to Ofcom’s August 2013 request for comments on the regulations, asked whether the relative slowness of other European nations to adopt similar policies raises any issues.

In its response, Ofcom agreed that, of the 48 CEPT administrations, only seven nations besides Britain have committed to implement the CEPT decision on mobile broadband satellite systems, called Earth Stations On Mobile Platforms, or ESOMPs.

And six of these seven other nations have indicated they would only partially adopt the CEPT decision.

But Ofcom said the CEPT decision was fairly recent, and that while it will take time for other nations to act, a similar light-touch regulatoary framework is likely to be approved by all CEPT members.

Ofcom said each ship captain or aircraft pilot offering broadband connectivity would need to have a license insofar as these officials are in charge of what is used on their platforms. 

Paris-based satellite operator Eutelsat asked that Ofcom make clear that non-British-registered planes and ships would not need to apply for special licenses as they traverse British territorial waters or airspace.

Ofcom agreed, saying non-British-registered platforms moving through British territory are required to operate without interfering with British-registered vessels’ communications but would not need separate licenses.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.