Over 2,000 satellites were launched into orbit in 2022, as the space sector responded to both the ever-increasing demand for data and the continued increase in use cases for satellite services. Against this dynamic backdrop, both regulators and industry are finding themselves increasingly grappling with ‘regulatory blind-spots’, caused by technology essentially ‘outpacing’ regulations, creating regulatory uncertainty and barriers for new satellite services and innovation to flourish.
Technological change forces regulatory flexibility
Technological advancements in the areas of satellite/terrestrial 5G convergence, satellite launchers, manufacturing, terminal devices, and other parts of the ecosystem are forcing regulators around the world to change the way they operate. Regimes that are tethered to specific technology types can lack the flexibility needed to keep up with the speed of change and are being replaced by more flexible ‘technology and service neutral’ models.
Some regulatory bodies are going one step further and engaging with emerging technology as it is being developed. This enables them to customise licensing exemptions and conditions of market access as the technology is being tested and evaluated rather than once it has been launched. This 'regulatory sandbox' approach developed notably in the Middle East, but has recently been adopted by other countries, including India, where the regulator announced a 'sandbox' of their own in June of this year. Usually regarded as a highly-regulated and 'strict' market, this adoption alone illustrates the significance of this step-change.
Regulators are also having to respond to the rapid growth and importance of satellite platforms as ‘connectivity enablers’ for multi-sectoral, remote, and mission critical IoT applications. With Australia and Egypt among those leading the way, they have needed to introduce and adapt new licence regulations, spectrum assignments, and technical conditions that enable low-data satellite IoT platforms and services.
Mind the regulatory gap
Satellite technology is being increasingly used to fill gaps in mobile network coverage. Known as 'direct-to-device' connectivity, many feel this could be the largest single market opportunity in satellite's history.
However, the operators’ prize of seizing this market rests precariously on unresolved regulatory and technical aspects. This could prove particularly troublesome for those operators pursuing terrestrial mobile-allocated spectrum for their satellite connectivity under Mobile Network Operator (MNO) partnership models, where there is currently no clear regulatory consensus. Satellite services operate across national borders. In Europe, this may mean many national or regional regulators having to cooperate and coordinate to guarantee services and protect other spectrum users within the satellite coverage.
Regulators must evaluate their frequency assignment rules and the ITU radio regulations when licencing 'direct-to-direct' services. In February of this year, while not excluding the possibility of licencing future satellite use, the German regulator, Bundesnetzagentur (BNetZA), raised interference concerns about plans to re-use terrestrial spectrum for satellite services. In the same month, within the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on new regulations for enabling 'direct-to-device' satellite networks ("Supplemental Coverage from Space").
The 'direct-to-device' topic will also be addressed at the upcoming WRC-23, with a view to include it in the Agenda for WRC-27. While there is no consensus yet on the frequency bands, there are proposals being discussed in the Regions, and national regulators acknowledge that this topic cannot be ignored and requires further study. In the meantime, stakeholders are having to pioneer licencing solutions and local regulatory arrangements on a country-by-country basis.
Cooperate to survive and thrive
The new and dynamic satellite environment requires ever closer cooperation and problem-solving between industry, international bodies, governments, and regulators. It is also clear that to deliver new services and technologies successfully and on a global scale, stakeholders must adopt an increasingly agile, strategic, and creative approach to tackling regulatory ambiguities and removing barriers to innovation.