FCC wants to launch satellite-to-smartphone service

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is beginning to put in place the legal framework that would allow companies to deliver satellite service directly to cellphones, as SpaceX, T-Mobile, AST Spacemobile and Lynk are attempting to do. Today it passed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that outlines how companies would obtain the appropriate licenses, what spectrum they could use and a “clear and transparent process” for the regulator to support their efforts.

The proposal primarily focuses on satellite companies that plan to work with existing cellphone carriers and use parts of the spectrum traditionally reserved for standards such as 5G. The advantage of this approach is that it allows phones to talk to satellites without the need for additional hardware – T-Mobile has already promised that it will use SpaceX satellites to allow people to text from areas where there is no coverage.

The FCC’s vision for the future is ambitious. It hopes for a “single network future,” according to a statement from President Jessica Rosenworcel, where devices will bounce between using cell tower and satellite signals without the user noticing. “We won’t need to think about what network, where and what services are available. Connections will work everywhere, all the time,” she says.

There are still plenty of open questions the FCC is trying to resolve, however. Its press release says it is seeking feedback on how systems like 911 and emergency alerts work when someone is connected to a satellite and “whether the framework can be expanded to other bands, locations and applications that could be supported by such collaborations”.

This isn’t the first time the FCC has worked to get satellites to communicate directly with phones. As companies like AST Spacemobile and Lynk tested their satellite-to-phone systems, the regulator granted them experimental licenses, as well as approvals to deploy their satellites. However, over the past two years its approach has been piecemeal, and there was always a sense that the regulator really should set specific rules on how companies could and could not use operator spectrum.

It was clear that the FCC was preparing to take action in the satellite-to-phone communications space, even if you didn’t see the original proposal drop in February. Just a few days ago, Rosenworcel was speaking at a dinner for the Satellite Industry Association and spent much of his time talking about an incident in December where a couple used the emergency SOS feature of the iPhone via satellite to get help after they hit their car. a canyon.

“What is so striking about this story is that it shows how the combination of satellite and terrestrial wireless capabilities can accomplish what no network can do alone,” she said.

She also noted that the regulator’s approach is “designed to make it easier for satellite operators working with terrestrial providers to obtain permission for converged services”, and said she will “consider what steps we need to take to protect spectrum rights and avoid harmful interference”. .”

It’s worth noting that Apple’s technology — and Qualcomm’s competitor, Snapdragon Satellite — aren’t really what the FCC is trying to come up with rules. These use spectrum licensed to satellite operators like Globalstar and Iridium, instead of relying on licenses from mobile operators like SpaceX, AST and Lynk hope to do.

The FCC has struggled to pass ambitious partisan regulations like net neutrality in its current state. The committee is politically deadlocked, with two Republican and two Democrat members, and hopes that this will be fixed anytime soon evaporated when Gigi Sohn withdrew her nomination, citing “relentless, dishonest and cruel attacks” over the course of of the last 16 months.

However, at their meeting today, all commissioners approved the notice of proposed rulemaking. They also all released relatively glowing statements about it. Of course, there’s a lot to do before then, and the public comments could prove controversial (AST and AT&T were urging the FCC to make changes even before it passed the notice of proposed rulemaking). It’s possible that the bickering will start when it’s time to write the final rule, but for now, it looks like there’s finally some progress.


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