FCC advances rules for satellite/terrestrial mobile convergence

Last month, there was a lot of talk at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona about the convergence of space and terrestrial mobile services. That wasn’t lost on FCC commissioners, who voted today to propose rules for a new regulatory framework for satellite-to-smartphone services, dubbed “supplemental coverage from space,” or SCS, in FCC parlance.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the framework is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and “we are going to lead.”  

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) comes as numerous satellite-to-smartphone services are rolling out and more are on the drawing board. Apple launched its iPhone 14 SOS service with Globalstar last year. T-Mobile announced its plan to end dead zones with SpaceX, and Qualcomm is working with Iridium to bring cellular-to-satellite connectivity to Android smartphones, to name just a few.

The FCC’s framework would allow a satellite operator to partner with a terrestrial mobile licensee to get access to their terrestrial spectrum through a lease arrangement and modification to the satellite operator’s license. Then the satellite system can provide service directly to the subscribers of the wireless carrier in areas where the carrier lacks coverage. 

The initial proposal focuses on frequency bands where the wireless licensee has nationwide service, but the commission is also asking for comment on how this could work if the mobile carrier has less than a nationwide footprint and still protects spectrum rights and prevents harmful interference, Rosenworcel said.

No more silos

Commissioner Brendan Carr said he recently attended MWC in Barcelona, where regulators and wireless industry stakeholders from around the world gathered to talk about the latest hot topics, and one issue in particular kept coming up: the emerging convergence of space and terrestrial mobile services.

“It’s easy to understand why,” he said. “These innovative new services embody the changing competitive landscape that consumers enjoy today. We no longer live in a world where wireline simply competes with wireline and mobile just competes with mobile. Increasingly, we’re seeing cable providers serve mobile wireless customers while traditional mobile wireless carriers add customers to their in-home broadband services. The silos are fading away and consumers are reaping the rewards.”

The item the commission adopted today recognizes that consumers don’t care if the signal comes from a cell tower or a satellite orbiting the earth, and it will help extend coverage across the country, including rural areas, he said.

Rosenworcel talked about how a couple driving in a remote area north of Los Angeles fell 300 feet from the Angeles Forest Highway. There was no cell service in the area, but they had an iPhone 14 with the SOS feature and they were able to alert first responders about their location. They were rescued within 30 minutes and airlifted to a hospital.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the potential goes beyond services like the iPhone 14 with satellite SOS and extends into what can lead to a more robust and powerful IoT. He’s heard “time and again” that the lack of coverage in the fields is holding back precision agriculture, for example.

The FCC said it’s seeking public comment on how its proposed framework might best support access to emergency response systems like 911 and Wireless Emergency Alerts when a consumer is connected via supplemental coverage from space.  The proceeding also seeks to build a record on whether the framework can be extended to other bands, locations and applications.

Prior to the FCC’s vote on Thursday, AT&T submitted comments in support of the efforts to allow terrestrial mobile networks to integrate SCS through collaboration with a satellite operator. However, it suggested a few changes to the draft, including the inclusion of FirstNet’s licensed 700 MHz spectrum among the SCS eligible bands.

AST SpaceMobile, which is working with AT&T, also told the commission that it’s important that the commission adopt technology-neutral rules that encourage efficient use of spectrum and facilitate rapid deployment of critical SCS-based services for the nation’s first responders.