SES’ Satellite Plan Draws FCC Vote, Rivals’ Complaints

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By Jon Reid

Space is getting crowded.

Satellite provider SES S.A.'s efforts to expand its commercial satellite services are running into resistance from rivals concerned that more satellites planned by SES’ subsidiary, O3b Networks, could trigger signal interference and take up bandwidth on their airwaves spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission’s plans to vote June 7 on O3b’s plan to more than double the satellite fleet. The Luxembourg-based company aims to launch 26 more satellites—up from its current dozen—to increase its broadband capacity for government and commercial customers, including the U.S. Defense Department, cruise line giants Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Corporation & plc, and others.

The vote is being held as the FCC considers ways to expand broadband coverage to all corners of the U.S., one of Chairman Ajit Pai’s top priorities. Satellite internet—a business that has boomed in recent years thanks to technological advancements—has the potential to vastly improve broadband connectivity across the world, particularly in areas where cellular or landline connections are difficult. But the proliferation of new satellites also raises regulatory issues that the top U.S. telecom regulator is still trying to address as rivals compete for space.

O3b’s proposal needs FCC approval because the agency has to modify the company’s market access license, including allocation of spectrum. Its proposal, first submitted to the FCC in June 2016, has been amended several times.

“Having more O3b satellites in space means that we will be able to deliver a lot more capacity,” company spokeswoman Suzanne Ong told Bloomberg Law in a statement.

Iridium Communications Inc., Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), Viasat Inc., and other companies have expressed concern to the FCC about various parts of O3b’s expansion plans.

“Accepting this amendment would make a mockery of the Commission’s satellite licensing process,” Scott Harris, counsel to Iridium, wrote in a May 29 FCC filing.

Interference, Spectrum Concerns

Comments by the FCC commissioners at their June meeting, as they discuss the proposal, likely will offer insights into potential regulatory moves. But fairly divvying up crowded spectrum bands, and easing interference with other satellite systems, will likely top their list.

O3b is far from the only satellite company to get push back from rivals as it jockeys for limited spectrum. The FCC will also vote at the June meeting on Audacy Corporation’s plan to launch a new three-satellite constellation that has drawn complaints from other satellite companies.

As part of O3b’s expansion plans, the company wants to deploy new feeder links—radio links between ground stations and satellites—that would operate on spectrum already used by Iridium, according to Iridium’s filings with the FCC.

Iridium, which claims to operate the world’s largest constellation of commercial satellites, argues in a recent FCC filing that O3b is attempting to skirt FCC rules because O3b’s planned feeder links are not authorized for that band. Iridium also says O3b’s use of that band could cause radio interference for its system. Iridium said it objects to O3b’s proposed feeder links, but not the company’s entire plan.

SpaceX hasn’t taken a formal position on O3b’s plan. But the company also said O3b’s new satellites could cause interference with SpaceX’s planned mega-constellations of thousands of satellites that aim to provide high-speed internet connectivity to U.S. households.

O3b says Iridium’s fears are exaggerated. “The Iridium Letter – with its dire predictions of adverse impact to Commission processes and liberal use of italics – vastly exaggerates the scope and implications of the minimal change contemplated in the O3b Amendment,” Suzanne Malloy, O3b’s vice president of regulatory affairs, wrote in a May 31 filing with the FCC.

The FCC’s proposed order on O3b would compel the company to coordinate with other satellite operators to prevent interference.

The FCC’s consideration of the O3b proposal aligns with Pai’s increasing emphasis on high-tech satellites.

“Since 2017, the FCC has placed greater emphasis on enabling new satellite technologies to help close the digital divide,” Pai said in a May 16 blog post announcing the June meeting.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com

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