Apple commits $450M for satellites, FCC sounds alarm about space debris

Apple today put a price tag on its work with satellite company Globalstar to provide emergency satellite texting via cellphones. It said it will spend $450 million with U.S. companies, the majority which will go to its satellite partner Globalstar, according to CNBC.

The funds will pay for satellites, ground station equipment and a new kind of antenna designed by Apple.

Apple announced its new “Emergency SOS via Satellite” feature at its annual event in September. The new iPhone 14 has emergency satellite connectivity to provide a text message service for people who are in dire circumstances in remote areas with no regular cellular coverage.

A slew of news related to satellite connectivity to regular cell phones has excited the telecom industry. New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin has written, “Satellite-enabled text is a small step toward a much bigger opportunity. The killer application will be ubiquitous global voice and data connectivity enabled via satellites that work seamlessly with terrestrial cellular networks. This could be a $20 Billion+ annual opportunity in the U.S.”

Space debris

But before more companies start deploying low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations willy-nilly, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is sounding an alarm about space debris. She’s noted that satellites have limited lifespans, but they continue to orbit indefinitely after they’ve gone out of service. This is not only irresponsible in terms of the space environment, but it creates collision hazards for operating satellites and problems with launching new constellations.

Earlier this month, Rosenworcel announced a plan to reorganize the FCC with a new Space Bureau to better manage the growing satellite industry.

In her announcement about the new bureau, she said, “Today, the FCC has before it applications for 64,000 new satellites. 64,000.”



The FCC has been having some back-and-forth with the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology related to the orbital debris issue.

In September, the FCC voted unanimously to require operators of LEO satellites to dispose of their satellites within five years of completing their missions. “By reducing the time that these dead satellites stay needlessly in orbit, the Commission is lowering the risk of debris-generating collisions that can pose grave dangers to astronauts, other spacecraft, and our environment,” she wrote in a letter to Congress.

But the Congressional committee has challenged the FCC’s authority. In a September 27 letter to Rosenworcel it wrote that the orbital debris issue needed to be “addressed comprehensively and holistically.” It said the committee is concerned by the FCC’s proposal to act unilaterally, and it asked the FCC to postpone its consideration of the matter.

In an October 27 reply, Rosenworcel said, “The Commission’s authority to adopt these rules for commercial satellites has been well established for more than 20 years.” And she again noted that the FCC has 64,000 applications pending before it for new satellites. “Our decision ensures that space safety is being considered from the start and not as an afterthought.”

Interestingly, some commenters on Twitter have noted that while the U.S. grapples with the problem of space debris, it doesn’t control space. 

Internationally, NASA has led coordination on space debris mitigation guidelines with other space agencies over several decades. But it’s unclear if NASA or the U.S. government have any real control over private companies in other countries.