FCC Releases NPRM on Supplemental Coverage from Space Framework

On March 17, 2023, the FCC released the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) seeking comment on a new regulatory framework for Supplemental Coverage from Space (“SCS”), which would allow satellite operators to collaborate with terrestrial service providers to expand coverage to terrestrial licensee subscribers.  The NPRM was adopted at the March Open Meeting.

The NPRM proposes and seeks comment on the following:

  • The SCS Framework:  The NPRM proposes a new framework where satellite operators collaborating with terrestrial service providers would be able to obtain Commission authorization to operate space stations on currently licensed, flexible-use spectrum allocated to terrestrial services, thus expanding coverage to the terrestrial licensee’s subscribers, especially in remote, unserved and underserved areas.
    • Under this proposal, the framework would be limited to spectrum and locations where (1) there is only a single terrestrial entity that holds, either directly or indirectly, all co-channel licenses for the relevant frequencies in a given geographically independent area (“GIA”), such as CONUS; and (2) there are no primary, non-flexible-use legacy incumbent operations (whether federal or non-federal) in the band. The framework would require both NGO satellite operator status, along with a leasing arrangement with the terrestrial licenses of the underlying spectrum.
  • Adding a Co-Primary Mobile-Satellite Service Allocation to Certain Bands Allocated to Terrestrial Services:  For the 600 MHz band (excluding the duplex gap), the 700 MHz band, AWS H-Block Spectrum, the WCS band, and the 800 MHz Cellular Radiotelephone Service bands, the NPRM proposes to modify the US table of allocations to authorize mobile satellite service to permit supplemental coverage from space to the subscribers of the relevant terrestrial network using those bands.  The FCC would add a bi-directional allocation via footnote to the table for these bands.  The FCC also seeks comment on testing and future bands that could be included.
  • Defining GIAs: To minimize interference between adjacent markets, the NPRM proposes to limit supplemental coverage through space to instances where a single terrestrial licensee holds all co-channel licenses in one of the following six GIAs: (1) CONUS; (2) Alaska; (3) Hawaii; (4) American Samoa; (5) Puerto Rico/U.S. Virgin Islands; and (6) Guam/Northern Mariana Islands.
  • Qualifying Space Station Operators: The NPRM proposes to limit SCS to NGSO satellite operators with existing part 25 licensees, who may apply to modify their authorizations where they meet certain criteria.  The operator may only modify its part 25 authorization if it has:
    • (1) an application on file with the Commission to lease the exclusive-use spectrum throughout an entire GIA, allocated for MSS provision of SCS, of a terrestrial licensee that holds all co-channel licenses, either directly or indirectly, throughout the GIA;
    • (2) a current part 25 space station license or part 25 grant of market access for NGSO satellite operation sufficient to cover the leased GIA; and
    • (3) proof of an application on file from the satellite operator’s terrestrial partner for a part 25 blanket earth station license covering all of its subscribers’ terrestrial devices that will be transmitting and receiving from the space station in conjunction with the provision of SCS.
    • The NPRM seeks comment on several alternatives, such as whether an operating agreement as opposed to a lease would suffice to meet the requirements in (1), and whether to allow new satellite entrants to enter into an SCS arrangement.
  • Changes to the Leasing Rules:  The NPRM seeks comment on whether its current leasing regime requires modification to accommodate the SCS framework, including whether it can be used to fill existing gaps in service or whether terrestrial licensees should first be required to meet all of its performance obligations, license terms and the length of the lease, the primary responsivity for interference concerns, severability, subleasing, and how it interacts with the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program (ECIP), among other things.
  • Service Rules: The draft NPRM seeks comment on the appropriate service rules, including the appropriate regulatory status for the space station partner, 911 service requirements, how participants intend to support WEA, spectrum aggregation and other competitive issues, deployment milestones, permissible communications, and whether there are new or other existing obligations that should be applicable here, among other things.
  • Technical Considerations: The NPRM seeks comment on technical rules, including whether there are special considerations for licensees with existing lease arrangements, power limits, market area boundary limits, out of band emission limits, elevation angle for satellite downlinks, and other technical limits, among other things.
  • International Coordination: The limits adopted in this proceeding would be subject to current and future international agreements.  As many of the bands proposed for SCS in the NPRM are not allocated for mobile-satellite service internationally, any such use would be considered non-conforming under the ITU Radio Regulations.  SCS operations could thus only be conducted on the condition that a station using such a frequency assignment shall not cause harmful interference to, and shall not claim protection from harmful interference caused by, an international station operating in accordance with internationally recognized provisions.
  • How to expand the SCS framework:  The NPRM seeks comment on how the proposed framework can be expanded, including whether it can be expanded into spectrum bands with non-flexible use incumbent licensees, whether to allow collaborating terrestrial licensees that hold all co-channel licenses to participate, and whether partial coverage is possible, among other things.  The NPRM also seeks comment on additional ways to provide supplemental coverage via satellites.

The FCC notes that it does not wish to discourage or delay the development of innovative solutions for supplemental satellite coverage. Accordingly, during the pendency of the proceeding, the FCC will continue to consider filings for requests for rule waiver, STAs, and experimental authorizations related to supplemental satellite coverage proposals, including proposals that may not meet the criteria proposed in the NPRM.  Any action on such applications would be subject to the outcome of the proceeding.

Comments will be due 30 days after Federal Register publication and reply comments will be due 60 days after such publication.

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