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FCC Reveals Framework For Satellite To Smartphone Connectivity

The US FCC has proposed a new framework to regulate the use of terrestrial wireless spectrum from space for direct-to-device services.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Tue Mar 21 2023Written by Zac Aubert

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States has announced its proposed framework for regulating the use of terrestrial wireless spectrum from space to connect smartphones beyond the range of cell towers. The framework will set ground rules for satellite companies such as SpaceX, AST SpaceMobile, and Lynk Global, which are seeking permission to offer direct-to-device services with spectrum from terrestrial mobile partners.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the framework was approved by all four of the FCC's commissioners on March 16. The regulator will initiate a 30-day public comment period once the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 30 days after that.

The proposed framework, called "Supplemental Coverage from Space" (SCS), acknowledges the challenges of accessing airwaves, frequencies that are not all globally aligned, possibilities for interference that must be managed, and standards work that could help grow these capabilities. However, the FCC believes that with the growing interest in the possibilities of convergence of satellite and terrestrial services, an ad-hoc, case-by-case approach to these new ventures is not enough.

An initial draft of the NPRM was initially circulated on February 23, which proposed limiting direct-to-device SCS services to spectrum bands where a single mobile operator has contiguous rights, and excluding the 700 MHz band that AT&T uses to connect first responders under its FirstNet service. AT&T, which has partnered with satellite direct-to-device startup AST SpaceMobile, said this was "unnecessarily restrictive" and called on the FCC to expand the framework.

The latest version of the NPRM still focuses on large areas of contiguous spectrum, but it was revised to account for other possibilities. The spectrum AT&T uses for FirstNet is now also being considered potentially part of the framework.

FCC commissioner Nathan Simington said that while it is important to perfect a new regulatory model for this emerging market, it must not get in the way of approving direct-to-device applications that the regulator is already processing. "The FCC must ensure those waiver applications move forward at a rapid clip to avoid thwarting business plans and future innovation," Simington said.

Scott Wisniewski, the chief strategy officer of AST SpaceMobile, described the framework as "a really good first step" and said he is encouraged by the FCC's intentions to "move with speed." Lynk Global CEO Charles Miller also welcomed the proposed framework, saying via email that "this FCC action sets the path for Lynk to acquire landing rights in the US via a mobile network operator."

SpaceX, which has partnered with T-Mobile in the United States and Salt in Switzerland, recently outlined plans to start testing direct-to-device services this year.

The proposed framework will give satellite companies clear guidance on what's allowed and what's not allowed, making it easier for them to operate in the US market.