TAMPA, Fla. — U.S. regulators will vote March 14 on a regulatory framework for allowing satellites to use radio waves from terrestrial mobile operators to keep their smartphone users connected beyond the reach of cell towers.

Jessica Rosenworcel, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, said Feb. 21 she had shared a final draft of rules with the regulator’s other four Commissioners that would pave the way for direct-to-smartphone services in the United States.

The FCC is due to publish the proposed rules publicly on its website Feb. 22 along with the agenda for the meeting.

If adopted, the framework would enable satellite operators and their terrestrial partners to seek FCC permission to use “certain licensed, flexible-use spectrum currently allocated to terrestrial services” from space, the regulator said in a news release.

A satellite operator must have a spectrum lease from a terrestrial licensee within a specified geographic area to get approval, the FCC said, along with other preexists that were not detailed. 

The framework is a particularly important milestone for satellite operators SpaceX and AST SpaceMobile, which have partnered with T-Mobile and AT&T, respectively, to break into the U.S. market even as work continues to develop the capability. 

But even with ground rules in place, direct-to-smartphone competitors seeking to use satellite instead of terrestrial spectrum warn of significant regulatory hurdles to come.

Omnispace, which seeks to use its S-band satellite spectrum to help mobile operators plug gaps in their terrestrial networks, says it faces significant interference if SpaceX is allowed to use T-Mobile spectrum for a direct-to-smartphone service.

The FCC will also seek to establish an interim requirement as part of the framework that would require mobile operators to use location-based protocols or an emergency call center to route all satellite-enabled 911 calls to a Public Safety Answering Point, where calls to first responders are received and handled.

A Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is being planned to seek public comment on this and other critical public safety issues, the regulator said in the news release, as well as measures to protect radio astronomy services.

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...