TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission unveiled its proposed framework March 17 for regulating the use of terrestrial wireless spectrum from space for connecting smartphones beyond the reach of cell towers.

The framework would establish ground rules for SpaceX, AST SpaceMobile, Lynk Global, and other satellite companies seeking permission to provide direct-to-device services with spectrum from terrestrial mobile partners. 

A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the framework was approved by all four of the FCC’s commissioners March 16.

“There are challenges with access to airwaves, frequencies that are not all globally aligned, possibilities for interference that must be managed, and standards work that could help grow these capabilities,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

“But what is clear is that with the growing interest in the possibilities of convergence of satellite and terrestrial services, an ad-hoc, case-by-case approach to these new ventures is not enough.”

The regulator said it will initiate a 30-day public comment period once the NPRM is published in the Federal Register at an undefined date, with reply comments due 30 days after that.

An initial draft of the NPRM for what the FCC calls “Supplemental Coverage from Space” (SCS) was initially circulated Feb. 23.

This initial draft proposed to limit direct-to-device SCS services to spectrum bands where a single mobile operator has contiguous rights, and to exclude the 700 MHz band that AT&T uses to connect first responders under its FirstNet service.

AT&T, which has partnered with satellite direct-to-device startup AST SpaceMobile, said this was “unnecessarily restrictive” and called on the FCC to expand the framework.

While the latest version of the NPRM still focuses on large areas of contiguous spectrum, it was revised to also account for other possibilities. 

The spectrum AT&T uses for FirstNet is also now being contemplated as potentially part of the framework.

Moving with speed

FCC commissioner Nathan Simington said March 16 that, while it is important to perfect a new regulatory model for this emerging market, it must not get in the way of approving direct-to-device applications that the regulator is already processing.

“The FCC must ensure those waiver applications move forward at a rapid clip to avoid thwarting business plans and future innovation,” Simington said.

AST SpaceMobile chief strategy officer Scott Wisniewski described the framework as “a really good first step,” and said he is encouraged by the FCC’s intentions to “move with speed.” 

Lynk Global CEO Charles Miller also welcomed the proposed framework.

“This FCC action sets the path for Lynk to acquire landing rights in the US via a mobile network operator,” Miller said via email.

SpaceX, which has partnered with T-Mobile in the United States and Salt in Switzerland, recently outlined plans to start testing direct-to-device services this year.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...