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Ofcom UK Propose Rule Changes for LEO Broadband Satellites

Monday, July 26th, 2021 (11:33 am) - Score 552
satellite_broadband_LEO_MEO_constellation_uk_space

The new generation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) based ultrafast broadband satellite constellations, such as from Elon Musk’s Starlink (SpaceX) and British-registered OneWeb, has today prompted Ofcom to launch a new consultation on several licensing changes to help support them and tackle potential interference.

Until very recently, most broadband internet connectivity services delivered to UK consumers via satellite came from huge double-decker-bus sized spacecraft (platforms) that were positioned high above the Earth in geostationary orbits (GEO / GSO), which often reflects a distance of about 35,000km+ from the planet’s surface.

Such satellites were often constrained by limited peak capacity, take years to build and cost hundreds of millions of pounds each. The huge distances involved meant that internet latency times were often incredibly slow (around 600-1000 milliseconds – useless for fast-paced online video games etc.), while data allowances often came with strings attached and service speeds could be poor (especially at peak times).

By comparison, the new generation of Non-Geostationary Satellite Orbit (NGSO) satellites, such as the LEOs mentioned earlier, aim to eclipse the old solutions by creating vast constellations of significantly smaller LEO satellites (needed because they sit much closer – often at around 500-1300km). When matched by enough ground stations and the right technologies, these can deliver 100Mbps+ class speeds with fast latency (c.20-50ms).

Ofcom-LEO-NGSO-Satellite-Broadband-Constellations-List

However, huge mega constellations of LEO spacecraft are significantly more complex to manage, not least in terms of disputes over issues such as interference between rival networks. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Radio Regulations require such networks to be able to operate without “causing harmful radio interference to each other“, but Ofcom notes that “these agreements are yet to be concluded … [and] this creates a risk that interference between NGSO networks could cause localised degradation to the quality and reliability of these services,” said the regulator.

So, to help support competition in the market and protect the quality of the service customers receive, Ofcom are today proposing changes to the licensing process for NGSO systems. In short, new checks on potential interference between networks, greater transparency of licence applications and a requirement for different networks to co-operate with each other on technical matters to avoid risk of disruption to their services.

Ofcom’s Proposed Licensing Updates

The licences affected are:

• Satellite (Earth Station Network). These licences allow the use of NGSO user terminals, for example the dish and equipment installed at a customer’s premises, and must be held by any satellite operator wishing to deliver services in the UK.

• Satellite (Non-Geostationary Earth Station). These licences authorise gateway earth stations which are large hubs that connect the satellite network to the internet and/or to private networks and cloud services.

The key changes we propose to the application process are:

• to include a check that systems being licensed can coexist without degrading consumer services;

• to include a check to guard against any restriction of competition that could arise if granting the licence could prevent subsequent parties entering the market; and

• to publish applications for any licences which we expect to grant and allow a period for comments where stakeholders can provide information regarding interference or competitive impact.

The new licence conditions we propose would:

• require technical cooperation between operators;

• enable us, where required, to manage local cases of interference that are impacting services thereby protecting UK consumers; and

• be included in new licences.

We would expect to update the small number of existing licences accordingly.

If we receive any licence applications during this consultation period, we will not progress them until we have made a decision on the proposed process and licence conditions.

We want to ensure that all relevant satellite equipment would be subject to these updated rules and therefore propose removing an existing licence exemption for certain user terminals (those operating in Ka band).

The consultation will be open to feedback until Monday 20th September 2021. Ofcom also intends to publish their related Space Sector Spectrum Strategy this Autumn, which will cover a much broader view of the satellite sector and related spectrum etc.

Leave a Comment
2 Responses
  1. FTTP4LOT3WALES says:

    You would assume that these frameworks would already exist to handle such issues PRIOR to allowing companies to send up thousands of satalites up into LEO.
    This goes to show, those few multinational who are 1st to market get to really dictate what the specs are, in this case interoperability or atleast to not degrade the QoS from rivals platforms. This all seems arse backwards, first mover advantage really is an advantage..

  2. NeilM says:

    Was this Ofcom acting on it’s own, or with prompting. I suppose it is always easiest to look for a shadowary influence nowadays, looking for someone with an axe to grind.

    However, hopefully Ofcom wants to make sure these potential systems play nice together. Trying to do a better job than the FCC.

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