FCC will vote on proposed D2D rules at March meeting

  • Companies like SpaceX and AST SpaceMobile that currently have partnerships with U.S. wireless carriers will likely benefit from the rules because they can use the wireless operator’s existing spectrum licenses

  • Satellite companies will still need to get a “spectrum lease” to provide this service to wireless operators’ customers

  • AST SpaceMobile praised the FCC’s Report and Order on social media

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote at its March 14 Open Meeting on whether to approve a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that provides a framework for how satellite and terrestrial networks should work together to provide connectivity for consumers.

The FCC calls this type of cellular-to-satellite communications, which is often referred to as direct-to-device (D2D), “supplemental coverage from space.”

Specifically, the agency’s report says that satellite operators that are currently working with wireless operators on D2D will be able to operate their “space stations” on flexible-use spectrum currently allocated to the wireless providers. However, satellite companies will need to have a spectrum lease from the wireless operator in a specific geographic area if they want to offer this type of service in that area.

Those satellite companies that receive authorization will then be able to provide connectivity to the cellular operator’s customers outside of their coverage area and in areas that currently are unserved or underserved because they are too remote. Examples of areas where this type of supplemental coverage would be beneficial include the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, Lake Michigan, Hawaii’s Hana Highway, the 100-Mile Wilderness, or the Uinta Mountains.

“By taking advantage of satellite connectivity, we can enhance our smartphones and get rid of ‘dead zones’ This groundbreaking framework will ensure continued U.S. leadership and establish a clear and predictable regulatory approach to these partnerships,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

In the report, the FCC points to companies such as SpaceX, Lynk Mobile and AST SpaceMobile that have received experimental licenses from the agency’s Office of Engineering and Technology to test communications between satellites and mobile station locations.

The FCC also noted that two of these three companies have partnerships with U.S. wireless operators, making them most likely to benefit from the FCC’s framework if it is approved. While Lynk has said it has agreements with a number of operators outside the U.S., AST SpaceMobile has a partnership with AT&T and SpaceX’s Starlink is working closely with T-Mobile.

AST SpaceMobile praised the FCC’s Report and Order on social media, noting that it includes key spectrum frequencies that are critical to AST SpaceMobile including 600 MHz, 700 MHz and 800 MHz. “This paves the way for direct cellular broadband from space using everyday smartphones,” the company said.

Waiver or framework?

Interestingly, the commission said some commenters, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and the CTIA, argued that the FCC should not create a new regulatory framework but instead just move forward with a waiver-based approach in which it issues individual waivers for certain D2D providers that will not to interfere with existing terrestrial wireless networks.

Not surprisingly, the FCC said that other commenters, including satellite companies such as Lynk, AST SpaceMobile and SpaceX, disagreed with the waiver-based approach and argued that relying exclusively on waivers would restrict flexibility and stall innovation.

The FCC instead decided to move forward with what it refers to as a “hybrid approach” by proposing this framework while also continuing to consider issuing waivers for other solutions on a case-by-case basis.

Besides voting on the Report and Order during its March 14 meeting, the FCC said it will also seek further comments on how D2D systems can coordinate with 911 systems and how radio astronomy operations might be protected from D2D service.