Insights Making space for satellite regulation

Commercial markets and regulatory implications

The recent expansion of non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) based satellite communication services in the UK has been marked by strategic partnerships and technological innovations. While these developments have so far principally been aimed at enhancing connectivity in remote areas, increasing convergence between satellite and mobile services and more accessible satellite direct-to-device (D2D) capabilities is challenging the industry’s status quo. Crucial regulatory implications arise regarding spectrum management, to balance existing uses against ensuring allocations foster innovation and efficient spectrum use.

The D2D market represents a paradigm shift in connectivity, allowing communications directly between satellites and handsets and circumventing some of the limitations of terrestrial networks. While mobile network operators have made significant progress in improving network coverage, there remain challenges serving remote locations, IoT applications and emergency services.

Recent NGSO developments in the UK include:

  • BT has announced a partnership with OneWeb testing the constellation’s capabilities.
  • BT is rumoured to be integrating SpaceX’s Starlink satellite kits to bridge connectivity gaps for rural customers. This collaboration leverages Starlink’s extensive network to potentially transform broadband access and mobile signals in hard-to-reach locations off the back of successful trials using Starlink NGSO services to connect selected very hard to reach locations.
  • Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) has utilised Starlink’s ultrafast broadband satellites to improve mobile backhaul capacity in the UK’s most remote regions, such as the Scottish Highlands.
  • The Government has successfully conducted trials using Starlink NGSO services to connect very hard to reach locations.
  • The Government announced through the UK Space Agency its Connectivity in Low-Earth Orbit (CLEO) programme, providing up to £160 million of funding over the next 4 years to UK companies and researchers to develop innovative satellite communications technologies. See further our reports on CLEO and how the UK can lead in emerging space technologies.

Ofcom is paying special attention to this growing field of NGSO services and converged satellite and mobile communications. While this could be the answer to many of Government’s digital qualms, access to spectrum is a critical consideration, with some jurisdictions electing to allocate more spectrum for satellite usage. Complex challenges arise also regarding chipset and handset compatibility, technology performance, interference management and adopting the most appropriate licensing regime. Ofcom recognises that appropriate regulatory frameworks are needed to support these outcomes, which may include revising current rules.

Space spectrum strategy (2022) and NGSO licence regime

Ofcom’s flagship strategy document outlined its intended means for managing the radio spectrum in the space sector addressing its significant expansion and development. See further our report on Ofcom’s space spectrum strategy.

Ofcom’s specific proposals regarding satellite communications include a strong emphasis on NGSO systems with a specific NGSO licensing framework already implemented in the UK. The strategy contemplates expanding spectrum access to boost satellite broadband speeds and improving international regulations for Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs).

Following a consultation in 2023, Ofcom has updated the NGSO earth station network licence to include explicit authorisation for earth stations on maritime vessels, such as boats and ships that connect to NGSO satellites, to clarify that these services are permitted in the territorial seas of the UK, Isle and Man and Channel Islands.

Since the creation of the new NGSO licences, operators such as SpaceX and Telesat have been granted NGSO gateway and network licences permitting connections with their NGSO satellite networks. Ofcom is currently consulting on a proposed NGSO earth station network licence to Inmarsat for its Gx-10 NGSO system and a variation to Starlink’s NGSO gateway licences to allow building more ground stations to connect to the Starlink NGSO system.

The 2024/25 Annual Work Plan (AWP) (2024)

The regulation of satellite communications services features significantly in Ofcom’s AWP Statement. It has also been the focus of a number of regulatory consultations Ofcom has launched recently, and that it intends to put out.

Ofcom set out its milestones for ‘enabling innovative satellite communication to support UK consumers and businesses’, which include:

  • Publishing its statement on 28GHz gateways (expected Q3 2024/25), building on its 2023 consultation and addressing stakeholder responses. In its consultation Ofcom set out its proposal to expand spectrum access for satellite gateways in the UK.
  • Call for Inputs (CFI) on MSS/Direct to Device (D2D) (expected Q1 2024/25), focusing on technological developments that enable satellite transmission directly to mobile devices (i.e. D2D) and ensuring spectrum authorisation for these new use cases remains fit for purpose.
  • Satellite Filings consultation (expected Q3 2024/25), where Ofcom is expected to consult on the Procedures for the Management of Satellite Filings in light of the increasing rate of NGSO deployments and implementing recent updates to international regulations.

Ofcom’s CFI on expanding spectrum access for satellite gateways (2024)

This latest consultation focuses on expanding access to satellite gateway spectrum in the Q/V and E bands to enhance satellite communications across the UK.

Ofcom seeks input on making additional spectrum available in these bands to facilitate connections between satellite networks and the internet, as well as other services. The consultation aims to gather evidence on future demand, potential benefits, and considerations for coexisting with current spectrum users.

Ofcom’s proposals include exploring the use of specific frequency ranges for satellite gateways, particularly the Q/V band (37.5 – 43.5 GHz, 47.2 – 50.2 GHz, and 50.4 – 52.4 GHz) and the E band (71 – 76 GHz and 81 – 86 GHz).

The CFI closes 14th June 2024.

The outcomes of the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23)

At the WRC-23, several outcomes were adopted that have an impact on the regulatory framework of satellite communications within the UK, directly influencing Ofcom’s operational strategies.

  • Key resolutions such as Resolution 131 promoted equitable access to important frequency bands, notably in the ranges of 37.5-42.5 GHz and 42.5-43.5 GHz, which are essential for fixed-satellite services and for enhancing satellite gateway capacities, particularly aimed at improving broadband speeds and connectivity.
  • The conference also addressed the operational aspects of ESIMs through Resolution 156, which supports their use with geostationary satellites in the bands 19.7-20.2 GHz and 29.5-30.0 GHz, aiding Ofcom’s initiatives to manage interference and improve competitive practices in satellite communications.

Several decisions from the WRC-23 will likely directly impact the workstreams detailed in Ofcom’s AWP (above) including:

  1. Publishing statement on 28GHz gateways: The WRC-23 brought forward resolutions that encourage and facilitate the use of high-frequency bands for fixed and mobile satellite services, including in the 28GHz band. Decisions related to expanding access to these high frequencies will bolster Ofcom’s efforts in implementing its proposed spectrum access expansion for satellite gateways.
  2. Call for Inputs on MSS/Direct to Device (D2D): WRC-23’s resolutions promoting the use of ESIMs and other advanced satellite technologies support Ofcom’s initiative focusing on D2D communications.
  3. Satellite Filings Consultation: the discussions and outcomes at WRC-23 about NGSO satellite systems and the associated international regulatory updates have direct implications for Ofcom’s work on managing satellite filings. WRC-23’s emphasis on updated procedures and new regulatory measures for NGSO systems supports Ofcom’s consultation plans.

Next steps

The regulatory consultations and decisions by Ofcom are reshaping the landscape for satellite and converged communication operators in the UK. Expanded spectrum access and the revision of licensing frameworks offer potential for enhanced service capabilities and new revenue streams.

However, these changes also necessitate substantial investments in technology and compliance. As we reported on here, significant opportunities will be realised once devices (and software that run them) could be adapted for D2D-based signals, requiring, and in many cases depending on, buy-in and leadership from device and hardware manufacturers cooperating with satellite service providers. Active participation by satellite operators, device manufacturers and operating system vendors in the regulatory process, as is openly encouraged by Ofcom, will help ensure the regulatory framework remains fit for purpose, accommodating both current needs and future innovations.

Additionally, operators must diligently ensure compliance with Ofcom’s decisions to capitalise on these opportunities while adhering to new operational standards, thereby securing their competitive position in the market and fostering sustainable growth.
With all these developments and milestones, this year is set to be a significant one shaping regulation for years to come for satellite providers and stakeholders in this market.

Watch this space.