ITU sets milestones for megaconstellations

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BREMEN, Germany — The International Telecommunication Union on Nov. 20 said the world’s spectrum regulators had reached consensus on milestones for constellations of satellites outside of the geosynchronous arc to preserve their spectrum rights. 

Regulators meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference this month said that for non-geosynchronous constellation operators to keep their full spectrum rights in the future, they will have to hit deployment milestones that start seven years after requesting the spectrum. 

After those seven years, NGSO constellation operators will need to launch 10% of their satellites in two years, 50% in five years and 100% in seven years. If constellation ventures fail to launch enough satellites by the milestones, or within the total 14 years allotted, their spectrum rights are limited proportionally to the number launched before time ran out. 

“Advances in satellite design, manufacturing and launch service capabilities have created new possibilities for high-bandwidth connectivity around the world,” Mario Maniewicz, director of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, said in a Nov. 20 statement. “This landmark agreement at WRC-19 represents a technological milestone that will enable the deployment of next-generation communications while providing broadband Internet access to the most remote regions.”

Until now, constellation ventures needed to launch a single satellite within seven years of applying for spectrum, operate it for 90 days and file so-called bring-into-use paperwork with the ITU in order to preserve desired frequencies. Regulators feared that those requirements left room for ventures to hoard spectrum for hundreds or thousands of satellites with the launch of a single satellite. 

The ITU said milestones will help ensure the United Nations entity can determine which spectrum applicants are truly building and launching satellites, and which are not. 

The ITU noted broadband megaconstellations are an increasingly sought after means of providing global internet access. SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon each plan thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit to connect offline or underserved areas. Telesat is also preparing a constellation of around 300 broadband satellites. 

Of the 1,100-plus NGSO filings the ITU has received, around 200 are for telecom constellations, Alexandre Vallet, chief of the Space Services Department in the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau told SpaceNews earlier this year. If each telecom constellation venture were to launch a single satellite, coordinating spectrum to avoid signal interference would become extremely difficult, he said. 

Constellations for other purposes such as Earth observation and astronomy will also have to abide by the milestones, the ITU said. 

Consensus existed to create constellation milestones, but regulators were split on what milestones were reasonable. 

The United States, which is home to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman, was advocating for milestones requiring constellation ventures launch 10% of their satellites in three years, 50% after five years and 100% after seven years. 

France and Italy — home to manufacturers Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space — were advocating as of May for milestones requiring 10% of a constellation launch after two years, 30% after four years and 90% after seven years, according to a European Conference on Postal and Telecommunications document obtained by SpaceNews

Those six companies build virtually all of the world’s commercial communications satellites. Regulatory experts said satellite manufacturers would have an impact on milestone discussions, since strict milestones would likely hurt their ability to sell constellations. 

Mark Rigolle, CEO of LeoSat, a broadband constellation venture that shut down in August, said in a November interview that megaconstellation companies were also seeking to influence the milestone debate. Frontrunner companies favored shorter milestones to cement their leads, he said, while other ventures preferred lengthier timelines.