The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is starting to set up the legal framework that would let companies provide satellite service directly to cell phones, like SpaceX, T-Mobile, AST Spacemobile, and Lynk are trying to do. Today it adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that lays out how companies would get the appropriate licenses, what spectrum they’d be able to use, and a “clear and transparent processes” for the regulator to support their efforts.
The main focus of the proposal is the satellite companies that are planning on working with existing cell carriers, and using parts of the spectrum traditionally reserved for standards like 5G. The benefit to this approach is that it allows phones to talk to satellites without the need for any additional hardware — T-Mobile has already promised that it’ll be using SpaceX’s satellites to let people text from areas where there isn’t any coverage.
The FCC’s vision for the future is ambitious. It’s hoping for a “single network future,” according to a statement from chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, where devices will bounce between using signals from cell towers and satellites without the user noticing. “We won’t need to think about what network, where, and what services are available. Connections will just work everywhere, all the time,” she says.
There are still a lot of open questions the FCC is trying to tackle, though. Its press release says it’s seeking comment on how systems like 911 and emergency alerts function when someone’s connected to a satellite and “whether the framework can be extended to other bands, locations, and applications that might be supported by such collaborations.”
This isn’t the first time the FCC has worked to get satellites talking directly to phones. As companies like AST Spacemobile and Lynk have been testing their satellite-to-phone systems, the regulator has granted them experimental licenses, as well as approvals to deploy their satellites. However, for the past two years its approach has been piecemeal, and there was always the sense that the regulator would have to actually make specific rules for how companies could and could not use carriers’ spectrum.
It’s been clear that the FCC was gearing up to take action in the satellite-to-phone communication space, even if you didn’t catch the initial proposal dropping in February. Just a few days ago, Rosenworcel was speaking at a dinner for the Satellite Industry Association and spent a fair chunk of her time talking about an incident in December where a couple used the iPhone’s emergency SOS via satellite feature to get help after crashing their car into a canyon.
“What is so striking about this story is that it demonstrates how bringing satellite and terrestrial wireless capabilities together can accomplish what neither network can do on its own,” she said.
She also noted that the regulator’s approach is “designed to make it easier for satellite operators collaborating with terrestrial providers to obtain authorization for converged services,” and said that it “will consider what steps we need to take to protect spectrum rights and avoid harmful interference.”
It’s worth noting that Apple’s tech — and Qualcomm’s competitor, Snapdragon Satellite — aren’t really what the FCC’s trying to propose rules around. Those use spectrum licensed to satellite operators like Globalstar and Iridium, instead of piggy-backing off cell carriers’ licenses like SpaceX, AST, and Lynk hope to do.
The FCC has struggled to pass ambitious partisan regulations like net neutrality in its current state. The commission is politically deadlocked, with two Republican members and two Democratic ones, and the hopes of that getting fixed anytime soon recently evaporated when Gigi Sohn withdrew her nomination, citing “unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks” over the past 16 months.
However, in their meeting today, all the commissioners approved the notice of proposed rulemaking. They also all released relatively glowing statements about it. Of course, there’s a lot that has to happen between now and then, and the public commentary could prove to be contentious (AST and AT&T were urging the FCC to make changes before it even passed the notice of proposed rulemaking). It’s possible the squabbling will start when it comes time to write the final rule, but for now it looks like there’s finally some forward progress.