Enough satellites to darken the skies

A long line outside the cinema is a sign of a popular film…

But when it comes to offering global satellite internet connectivity with hundreds, even thousands, of satellites, those with long memories could ask: Haven’t we seen this film before?

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), having received the OneWeb application to launch 700-plus satellites into low Earth orbit, asked other companies proposing global internet constellations to declare themselves by Nov. 15.

And did they ever! Eleven different proposals covering a multitude of orbits — LEO, HEO, GEO with special sauce, polar, inclined, equatorial — made applications in an extraordinary show of enthusiasm for the satellite communications business.

Filing a proposal to the FCC is only a first step. The agency’s receipt of the filing does not constitute approval. Anyone with a lawyer and an engineer can make a filing.

The trick is to find out which of them have solid enough financial backing or superior frequency-reservation rights at the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N. organization that allocates orbital slots and frequencies.

Here are the companies whose proposals made it by the FCC deadline: Audacy, Boeing, Karousel, Kepler Communications, LeoSat, O3b, Space Norway, SpaceX, Telesat, Theia Holdings and ViaSat.

A couple of them make reference to their backers, but most do not, and none includes specific capital cost estimates.

At least one — SpaceX, whose 4,425 satellites is the biggest of the bunch — has asked the FCC to waive its requirement that systems be launched and in service within six years of receiving a license. SpaceX says initial service using 800 satellites could be fielded in that period, but that it’s not realistic to expect them to build and place into service 4,425 satellites just 72 months after receiving a license.

Phased array antennas are everywhere in these filings, both on board the satellites and on the ground, and optical inter-satellite links are also numerous. It will be interesting to see what these companies assume as the size and weight of these laser communications terminals and how that affects the per-launch satellite mass.

Those who really miss the days of Teledesic, Celestri, ICO and SkyBridge of the late 1990s will be glad to know that with these new systems and OneWeb’s, equivalent power-flux density metrics are again at center stage.

The ITU has set rules preventing new constellations to interfere with established ground and satellite systems operating in the same frequencies. OneWeb, for example, has said it will basically switch off power as its satellites cross the equator so as not to disturb transmissions from geostationary-orbit satellites directly above and using Ku-band frequencies.

Expect a fresh round of filings to the FCC by telecommunications network operators claiming that one or more of the proposed constellations poses a clear risk to established services.

The ITU, for its part, has said repeatedly that its rules prevent frequency interference and systems like OneWeb should be allowed to proceed. How many systems could be licensed? That’s difficult to know given the variety of orbits and services that are contained in these filings.

A final point: Many of the proposals take pains to assure the FCC that they will do what’s needed to prevent collisions in orbit and to deorbit their satellites at the end of their service lives. This is not an easy commitment for a satellite operator to make if its satellites are being retired after only five years or so.

Nonetheless, at a time when many otherwise good-citizen fleet operators do not respect international guidelines about orbital debris, the satellite world will be watching to see if the FCC is willing to force these new systems into compliance.