Signs of a Satellite Internet Gold Rush in Burst of ITU Filings


PARIS — The international agency that regulates satellite orbital slots and broadcast frequencies has registered at least a half-dozen filings for massive constellations of satellites in the past eight weeks, a development that suggests a gold-rush mentality may be taking hold.

Behind these registrations, all made through governments, may hide well-known names including SpaceX, Google, Virgin Group, Qualcomm or other investors that in recent weeks have, in different ways, made public their interest in launching hundreds, even thousands, of satellites to provide global Internet service.

For now, the filings at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) of Geneva, a United Nations agency, are not obliged to show their hands beyond the barest information about the orbits they intend to use and the number of satellites to be launched.

OneWeb Jan 15 that it has backing from Qualcomm and Virgin  to build a 650-satellite constellation to provide global Internet access. Credit: OneWeb Ltd./SpaceNews
OneWeb Jan 15 that it has backing from Qualcomm and Virgin to build a 650-satellite constellation to provide global Internet access. Credit: OneWeb Ltd./SpaceNews

ITU procedures are that national administrations register the satellite networks at the ITU, almost always on behalf of a corporate sponsor.

Of the constellation filings made since late November at the ITU, none is registered in the United States, and none has elected to use the U.S. Federal Communications Commission as its ITU conduit.

One government official said the FCC, among the world’s most sophisticated national telecommunications regulators, might ask too many questions for the comfort of the companies backing the proposed networks. That and the fact that the FCC charges filing fees that are higher than many other administrations could account for the fact that there are no U.S. filings in the current bunch.

It is not difficult, nor is it uncommon, for a U.S. company to use another nation’s telecommunications regulator in its filings with the ITU.

In the case of the most recent constellations staking their claims at the ITU, it is Canada, France, Norway and Liechtenstein that the undisclosed registrants have selected to begin the administrative process of registering a network.

It costs around 35,000 Swiss francs ($40,000) in administrative fees for each satellite network being registered. For satellites intended for specific orbital locations on the geostationary arc some 36,000 kilometers over the equator, this generally means a per-satellite fee.

For nongeostationary constellations, however, the cost is limited to the equivalent of one satellite.

The ITU operates on a first-come, first-served basis. A satellite network whose ITU registration comes earliest has the least problem coordinating its use of spectrum. All those wishing to use the same spectrum in the same region must avoid interference with those who registered earlier.

For years, this has created at the ITU a motive for companies and national regulators to reserve orbital slots and frequencies by the fistful, hoping that a few will survive the process of coordinating broadcasts with neighbors.

Other companies file for defensive purposes only. Once a network is registered, its backers have seven years before they need to “bring into use” the spectrum. During that time, competing networks pursue development at their peril, knowing their ability to operate in their selected frequencies might be compromised if someone ahead of them in the queue decides to pursue development.


SpaceX founder Elon Musk in Seattle announcing plans to build a 4,000-satellite constellation. Credit: Washington Aerospace Partnership via Twitter
SpaceX founder Elon Musk in Seattle announcing plans to build a 4,000-satellite constellation. Credit: Washington Aerospace Partnership via Twitter

It is unclear what happened in November to cause these constellations to head to the ITU. Industry officials said it could have been that word leaked that Google and SpaceX were teaming up behind SpaceX’s since-announced several-thousand-satellite constellation.

It could have been that WorldVu Satellites of Britain’s Channel Islands was on the verge of attracting Virgin Group of London and chipmaker Qualcomm of San Diego, as investors in what is now called the OneWeb 650-satellite Internet constellation.

In one case, it appears that Thales Group of France, acting through the French National Frequencies Agency, has covered the orbital waterfront with a filing called MCSat, covering one series of between 800 and more than 4,000 satellites at different altitudes and different orbital architectures in low Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit and highly elliptical Earth orbit in Ku- and Ka-band, according to ITU records.

A Canadian filing called CANPOL-2 is designed as an eight-plane architecture, with as many as nine satellites per plane in low and highly elliptical Earth orbit and broadcasting in VHF-, UHF-, X- and Ka-band – up to 72 satellites for frequencies usually associated with military networks.

The Liechtenstein filing on behalf of a project registered under the name 3ECOM-1 calls for 24 satellites in each of 12 orbital planes, or 264 satellites in total using Ku- and Ka-band.

Another Canadian filing, this one registered under the name COMSTELLATION, would use 794 satellites in Ka-band in low Earth orbit flying in 12 orbital planes.

A Norwegian filing called ASK-1 is identified as a constellation of as many as 10 satellites in highly elliptical orbit – this orbit is used to assure coverage at high latitudes – using X-, Ku- and Ka-band.

The only filer whose identity is known is L5, the ITU name for the OneWeb network, which has made multiple ITU registration requests in Ku- and Ka-band for its 650-satellite system. These have been made through the United Kingdom’s Ofcom regulator.

In terms of the number of planned satellites, the most ambitious of the recent registrations, also made through Norway, is for a network called STEAM. STEAM-1 is in Ku-band. STEAM-2 is Ka-band. The network is described as 4,257 satellites distributed among 43 orbital planes.

As they move through the ITU process in the coming months, network sponsors will be forced to identify themselves and to make an initial assessment of how difficult it will be to coordinate, and with whom.

“The coordination procedures will be problematic,” one ITU official said.