With the goal of paving “the way for greater broadband offerings in the United States, particularly in remote and rural areas,” the FCC voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt a Report and Order (R&O) which modernizes the agency’s rules to promote deployment of a new generation of non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) fixed satellite service (FSS) systems.

Last June, the FCC approved the request of British satellite operator WorldVu Satellites Limited (also known as “OneWeb”) to provide broadband service to the U.S. market through its planned network of 720 NGSO FSS satellites in the Ka- and Ku-bands. That action represented the FCC’s first grant of an NGSO FSS license in a decade, and Tuesday’s vote is expected to facilitate approval of additional NGSO FSS system proposals which the FCC received last year through a processing round triggered by the OneWeb request. Approximately twelve Ka/Ku-band NGSO FSS applications (plus nine additional proposals to operate NGSO FSS systems in parts of the V-band) were filed with the FCC during the OneWeb processing round. During Tuesday’s open meeting, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed that he has begun to circulate draft orders among his fellow commissioners that would grant U.S. market access to NGSO FSS systems proposed by Telesat Canada and Space Norway during the aforementioned processing round. However, the exact timing of FCC action on these and other pending NGSO FSS system applications remains unknown.

In a news release announcing Tuesday’s vote, the FCC observed that its decision to update, clarify, and streamline its rules governing NGSO FSS systems is intended “to better reflect current technology and promote additional operational flexibility.” Specifically, the R&O (1) amends the U.S. Table of Frequency Allocations “to better accommodate NGSO and geostationary satellite operations,” and (2) streamlines NGSO deployment milestones and amends international geographic coverage requirements to provide greater flexibility to NGSO FSS operators. Along that vein, the R&O extends the construction milestone period from six to nine years and requires operators to satisfy at least half of their prescribed milestones within the first six years of license grant. Spectrum sharing rules were also refined under the R&O to allow different satellite constellations to use the same frequency bands subject to good faith coordination requirements. If operators using the same frequency bands are not able to reach an agreement on sharing, the R&O prescribes a default sharing methodology in which overlapping spectrum would be divided equally among affected parties once a specified interference threshold is exceeded. The R&O provides additional spectrum resources and operational flexibility in implementing a secondary frequency allocation for FSS in the 17.8-18.3 GHz band while opening up a new allocation for FSS in the 18-20 GHz band. 

As he spoke of the promise that new satellite networks hold in bridging the digital divide, Pai proclaimed: “the rules we adopt will promote the next generation of NGSO systems which could expand broadband access where it’s needed most.” Agreeing that the new, planned NGSO FSS systems “have the potential to provide ubiquitous broadband services to all communities,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said, “I look forward to reviewing the pending petitions under the updated framework we adopt today.” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly pointed out, however, that the satellite operators involved in the current NGSO FSS processing round “have designed very different orbital systems” that pose “quite the challenge for the Commission as the satellite industry is not in agreement on some of the issues decided in this item.” Despite voting in favor of the rules promulgated in the R&O, O’Rielly acknowledged that the rules “may need to be revisited on reconsideration or, potentially, in the future when these systems are more mature.”