The biggest impediment to SpaceX's plan to create a worldwide, satellite broadband network might not be the sheer technological difficulty of putting 4,000 satellites into space. Instead, outdated international and domestic regulations on satellite communications could stand in the way, according to a new Federal Communications Commission filing by the company.
In January, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company plans to launch an array of internet-providing satellites that will orbit roughly 750 miles above the Earth, giving the company something to do with those reusable rockets it's been developing. But, in order to launch and operate any satellite, manufacturers have to reserve communications spectrum with either the FCC or another country's communications body, which then must deal with the International Telecommunication Union.
The spectrum-reserving process is also extremely important, from both a business and practical standpoint. Without dedicated spectrum, ground control systems can't contact satellites, which means you have a useless piece of junk hurtling through space at very fast speeds. But spectrum is also very crowded, meaning it's not handed out like candy.
If he's going to build an array of internet satellites, it appears he wants to do it very, very quickly
As you'd expect, it's a complex, expensive process. In fact, it's so complex and so expensive that many commercial space operators have been skipping the FCC altogether and getting their satellites registered overseas, say, in the Isle of Man, which has a far more straightforward licensing system. SpaceX's system of many, non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites complicates the process further.
"The FCC is very good at what it does, but spectrum licensing is an extremely arcane part of the whole system," Christopher Stott, chairman of ManSat, a company that does licensing in the Isle of Man, told me. "All countries need to comply with the ITU rules, but countries' internal regulations are different, and it's become this kind of competitive environment. There are 100 countries active in orbital flying, and only 65 or so satellite companies."
There are no space launch facilities on the Isle of Man, but you can still license spectrum from them. Same with Tonga, and many other countries. The ease of licensing through a foreign country has been, on some levels, a boon for satellite companies. But SpaceX says it's so easy to get spectrum from some countries that it could ultimately create false competitors who are out only to impede SpaceX and other serious space companies.
"US-based satellite operators may prefer to operate as US licensees but are often forced to seek ITU filing and coordination through foreign administrations given the current FCC regulatory environment, which often places US networks at a disadvantage in the competitive international marketplace," SpaceX attorneys wrote in a filing last week with the FCC.
The ease of licensing in other countries "create[s] additional incentives for foreign administrations to pursue NGSO broadband satellite filing strategies that effectively block access to available spectrum and orbital resources," the company continued. "This, in turn, substantially undermines competition and innovation by significantly delaying or preventing bona fide NGSO broadband satellite system proponents from coordinating and ultimately deploying competitive systems."
Smallsat operator: Seen FCC fee schedule? Amateur sat: free. Experimental: $60. Operational sat: $430,000. Pressure to file as experimental.
— Peter B. de Selding (@pbdes) March 3, 2015
For companies wanting to fly to space under an American "flag," or using American spectrum, there has been a workaround—many satellite manufacturers have pushed to get their satellites classified as "experimental" by the FCC, a designation that makes the licensing process much more straightforward and many orders of magnitude cheaper. Stott says the experimental distinction is, from his perspective, simply semantics.
An experimental license from the FCC also won't work for SpaceX, because experimental satellites technically aren't supposed to operate for longer than a year or two. SpaceX's satellites presumably would need to be in space for much longer in order to be useful.
"SpaceX will need to put up a couple satellites to do experiments, of course," Gus Hurwitz, a space law professor at the University of Nebraska, told me. "But it won't make sense for them to use experimental for the entire array. They'll need to reconfigure the constellation for the long haul."
So it's understandable that SpaceX wants the FCC to reform its satellite licensing regulations. The FCC realizes that its rules are currently too complex, and has been trying to lower both the financial and legal barriers to entry for commercial satellite operators. The FCC and SpaceX did not respond to my multiple requests for comment.
While it has asked the FCC to reassess regulations, SpaceX doesn't want the hoops companies need to jump through to be too low. The company's attorneys said the company worries that new regulations might make it too easy for companies to "abuse" the system in the United States, much like they do internationally.
"Spectrum warehousing can be extremely detrimental and unprepared, highly speculative, or disingenuous applicants must be prevented from pursuing 'paper satellites' (or 'paper constellations'), which can unjustly obstruct and delay qualified applicants from deploying their systems," SpaceX wrote.
See, SpaceX isn't the only company that wants to launch broadband satellites. And the company worries that a competitor will be able to launch, say, one satellite, "test" it, and then sit around while it works to procure funding or figure out technical problems, all the while sitting on very valuable spectrum.
"If a licensee is authorized for 10,000 satellites, the launch of a single satellite after three and a half years is not an indicator that the licensee can successfully deploy the other 9,999 satellites, or even a significant fraction thereof," the company wrote.
And this is where we get some insight into SpaceX's plans. The company proposes that, within six years of being granted a license, any satellite broadband-providing company should be required to launch 75 percent of the total satellites they planned for. So, if SpaceX gets approval for 4,000 satellites, which is a number it's bandied about before, it believes it'll be able to launch 3,000 of them within six years of getting approval from the FCC.
That's a Herculean task. The company might be able to launch more than one satellite at a time—we know virtually nothing about what its satellites will look like, but its various rockets should be able to carry several—but Musk is still looking at a lot of launches, perhaps more than one a week.
Musk has made it no secret that the reusable rocket is key to SpaceX's future plans, and this filing makes that painfully obvious. If he's going to build an array of internet satellites, launches that cost many millions of dollars each are not going to work. And, if he's going to build an array of internet satellites, it appears he wants to do it very, very quickly. The question, now, is whether the FCC sees space the same way he does.