Consumers win in a competitive space race

Published 1:25 pm Saturday, October 3, 2015

by Helen Domenici

Several companies are working to launch massive satellite constellations into space to provide super-fast Internet virtually anywhere on Earth. Two of the leading firms advancing this plan, OneWeb of Great Britain and U.S.-based SpaceX, share the same goal — to bring broadband Internet to billions of people who lack access. But it remains unknown whether the new era of space-based connectivity will be spurred by healthy competition or regulatory turf wars over satellite spectrum.

OneWeb, a startup based in Britain’s Channel Islands that plans to launch 600-700 satellites by 2019 has acquired the support of satellite makers like Airbus, would-be launch providers like Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and several other major corporations.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has advantages of its own. As the world’s fastest-growing launch service provider, the aerospace company plans to launch 4,000 satellites within five years. SpaceX already has built complex satellites in-house. And in January, Google and Fidelity announced a $1 billion bet on the continued success of SpaceX.

Considerably less constructive than the head-to-head business commitments made by these two companies to date, however, are attempts to corral international bureaucrats as competitive leverage.

For both SpaceX and OneWeb, satellite-based Internet will operate in large measure on the Ku-band radio frequency range. OneWeb has been eager to let the world know that it was the first to register some of its plans with the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency that coordinates satellite spectrum frequencies.

Mr. Branson has suggested that OneWeb’s winning race to the front door of the ITU — if not yet into orbit — means that OneWeb alone now owns the entire Ku-band frequency. OneWeb, he claims, “has the rights [to the spectrum], and there isn’t space for another network.”

The reality is very different. Filing for Ku spectrum at the ITU is not like winning the lottery. Contrary to Mr. Branson’s claims, OneWeb’s filing-date priority does not give the small startup a monopoly over an entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum. NBC, after all, was the first television network to register for Ku-band service. That doesn’t mean the network somehow owns all television transmission rights.

This summer, the director of the ITU Radio Communication Bureau, François Rancy, stated that the purpose of filing rules “is not to state an order of priorities for rights to a particular orbital position.” Spectrum filings do not convey exclusive rights, but rather reserve a seat at the coordination table with other users.

Moreover, the ITU is not a global patent office for spectrum, but rather a facilitator of equitable spectrum use.

In fact, registering with the ITU is the easy part. The major bureaucratic hurdles come at the national level. Just as every country has sovereign airspace, every country has control over the spectrum in its territory. To succeed in making Internet access global, OneWeb, SpaceX and other competitors will need approval from individual countries for the use of spectrum.

For example, when two satellite companies want to provide service to the United States, using the same radio frequency spectrum, it is the Federal Communications Commission — not the ITU — that coordinates the companies’ spectrum so they can operate together. If dispute isn’t resolved, the FCC splits the spectrum between them. The FCC is required to serve the public interest, so the agency works to foster innovation and ensure competition in order that the spectrum best meets the nation’s needs.

These new satellite constellations hold the promise to welcome billions of new users into the global digital community. Livestock farmers in remote Himalayan villages and laborers on Indonesian oil rigs will soon have access to the Internet’s vast resources. Here in the United States, consumers seeking broadband will finally have an alternative to the major telephone and cable high-speed networks.

Consumers everywhere win when there are choices. So it’s encouraging that two companies plan to enter the space race. But it’s discouraging that one of them is mischaracterizing international spectrum rules.

HELEN DOMENICI managed and directed the International Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission from 2007 to 2009. She works as a consultant in telecommunications policy.