The new star wars over satellites

Article by Peggy Hollinger: “There is a battle brewing in space. In one corner you have the billionaires building giant satellite broadband constellations in low earth orbit (LEO) — Elon Musk with SpaceX’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos with Project Kuiper. 

In the other corner stand the traditional fixed satellite operators such as ViaSat and SES — but also a number of nations increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which the new space economy is evolving. In other words, with the dominance of US mega constellations in a strategic region of space.

The first shots were fired in late November at the World Radiocommunications Conference in Dubai. Every four years, global regulators and industry meet to review international regulations on the use of radio spectrum. 

For those who have only a vague idea of what spectrum is, it is the name for the radio airwaves that carry data wirelessly to enable a vast range of services — from television broadcasting to WiFi, navigation to mobile communications.

Most people are inclined to think that the airwaves have infinite capacity to connect us. But, like water, spectrum is a finite resource and much of it has already been allocated to specific uses. So operators have to transmit signals on shared bands of spectrum — on the promise that their transmissions will not interfere with others. 

Now SpaceX, Kuiper and others operating in LEO are pushing to loosen rules designed to prevent their signals from interfering with those of traditional operators in higher orbits. These rules impose caps on the power used to transmit signals, which facilitate spectrum sharing but also constrain the amount of data they can send. LEO operators say the rules, designed 25 years ago, are outdated. They argue that new technology would allow higher power levels — and greater capacity for customers — without degrading networks of the traditional fixed satellite systems operating in geostationary orbit, at altitudes of 36,000km.

It is perhaps not a surprise that a proposal to make LEO constellations more competitive drew protests from geo operators. Some, such as US-based Hughes Network Systems, have admitted they are already losing customers to Starlink.

What was surprising, however, was the strong opposition from countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Japan and others…(More)”.