Here's why SpaceX and OneWeb just asked the FCC to forget all past disputes
As the number of satellite mega-constellations in Earth's orbit continues to grow, companies will need to find ways to coexist not only in space but also across the vast, but limited satellite frequency bands used to beam information down to Earth.
SpaceX and OneWeb announced this week that they reached a spectrum coordination plan that would allow their current and next-gen broadband mega-constellations to coexist, stated a press statement sent to IE by SpaceX.
It is "a great example of our companies working together to ensure our complex systems are able to deliver the best possible service to our customers across the U.S.," OneWeb director of communications Katie Dowd told IE over email.
But what does it mean exactly for consumers, and how will this agreement impact future satellite operations?
SpaceX and OneWeb collaborate for 'more productive use of scarce spectrum resources'
The announcement was made in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in which both firms also asked the regulator to disregard any previous disputes either company had filed against the other.
"By working together and ensuring that first-round systems are protected, the Parties [SpaceX and OneWeb] have been able to drive more productive use of scarce spectrum resources for the benefit of American consumers and businesses," the two companies wrote in their joint letter.
"Given this positive development, the Parties encourage the Commission to quickly approve each second-round system so that they may begin deploying these cutting-edge systems and offering even more advanced services as soon as possible," they continued.
Though Dowd told IE that she could not discuss the details of the agreement, she said that OneWeb is "delighted by this achievement," also stating that the teams "worked hard to make this happen."
Why is satellite spectrum coordination so important?
In February, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced a new spectrum coordination initiative, stating that it would "build a common vision for spectrum management and coordination." A comprehensive NTIA review on space-based operations and spectrum use last year concluded that "over-the-horizon" markets and services, including satellite internet, could generate $14 billion in cumulative revenues by 2028, requiring increased oversite.
Now, the OneWeb and SpaceX agreement raises some important questions, highlighting the issue of spectrum coordination and the role of regulators in the field. How will spectrum issues such as interference be resolved as more mega-constellations come online? Do we need more regulatory oversight to ensure the spectrum is used efficiently?
SpaceX has permission to launch 4,408 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) that use the Ku-band spectrum to connect users to the internet, and it is seeking approval to add roughly 30,000 more to improve its broadband services. British firm OneWeb, meanwhile, has permission for 648 satellites that use the Ku-band in LEO to connect users, and it wants to grow its constellation to roughly 7,000 satellites.
The V-band is more susceptible to rain fade and provides more technical challenges, but both SpaceX and OneWeb also aim to deploy satellites using that spectrum, mainly due to the vast spectrum availability it affords amid the growing number of mega-constellations.
Satellite mega-constellation competition gets heated
Up until now, private companies have largely regulated the use of the spectrum themselves. Competition for bandwidth has led to disputes between companies in the past, including OneWeb and SpaceX.
As SpaceNews points out, SpaceX also has an ongoing dispute with Viasat and has complained that Viasat used Ka-band frequencies designated for operators in non-geostationary orbit without meeting required FCC conditions. SpaceX is trying to block Viasat’s $7.3 billion plan to buy British satellite operator Inmarsat, saying in a June 10 letter to the FCC, "the public interest is not served by giving a company with such blatant disregard for the Commission's rules control over the Inmarsat satellite system."
Viasat, meanwhile, has called on the FCC to perform an environmental review of Starlink, highlighting issues with light pollution.
So it's nice to see OneWeb and SpaceX collaborating. SpaceX, of course, helped OneWeb launch a batch of internet satellites to orbit in March after Russia canceled plans to launch the satellites into orbit aboard a Soyuz rocket, citing Western sanctions due to its invasion of Ukraine. With new competitors entering the field, though, including fierce Elon Musk rival Jeff Bezos with Amazon's Kuiper project, more regulation will likely be required to make sure the companies are playing nice over scarce spectrum resources.