Landing rights in the US – and the Federal Communications Commission

One of the first things that must be done when you plan for a satellite launch, is to consider the countries the satellite will fly over when in orbit.

It is the satellite’s area of coverage that is important. When Space Norway decided to establish broadband mobile communication to the Arctic using two highly elliptical satellites, applications to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) were made. The ITU is an entity for coordination seeking international coexistence, but without sanctioning powers over nations. The filing with the ITU secures, in general terms, the utilization of necessary frequencies for satellites in their specified orbits. The ITU has the complete overview over all spectrum filings, what it may be used for and what it actually is used for. Space Norway’s filings registered with the ITU is the first stop on the way to being able to use the frequencies on the satellites’ payloads.

Each country has its own national organization that coordinates the satellite operators’ filings with the ITU. In Norway, this is administered by the National Communications Authority (Nkom). The Nkom keeps track of all frequency use in Norway and has a national coordination role.

Some countries have organizations with more authority than others, for example the USA and Canada – and both countries are important for Space Norway’s Arctic broadband satellites since permission to use the systems in each country must be obtained. The telecommunications authority for the US is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Back in 2017, an application was submitted and later that same year, a conditional permission was granted. The condition was that an agreement be reached with all other satellite operators. This means that the real work begins with this permission. A satellite operator must make sure that their signals do not interfere with other signals and the other way around. See this article about this very demanding process. Space Norway immediately started dialogue with operators in the US (and the rest of the world) to analyze coexistence. For the US, this included for example SpaceX, with a very high number of satellites in low earth orbit, being one of the operators. Now, several years later, agreements have been made with SpaceX, One Web and Amazon, while some operators still remain. The FCC is an enforcing agency, and all operators with landing rights must pay a bond up to USD 5M. Operators that are not operational within six years after receiving permissions, risk loosing this bond. This is done to prevent spectrum harvesting, meaning that the very limited frequency resources are bound by systems not being built or put into operation. The way the US organizes this, is different from most other countries, but then nowhere else in the world is the activity level as high regarding the need for frequencies as in the US.

Landing rights are not needed in the EU, including Norway, but the need to manage frequencies is the same, and the ITU regulated coordination is done in dialogue with each country’s administration or with each operator.

As for some of the other countries in the Arctic, landing rights are needed for ASBM also in Canada, which was achieved when coordination with all relevant Canadian satellite operators were in place.

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