Spectrum allocation is a complex issue that plays a vital role in internet access. With the recent eruption of low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellite businesses, more players than ever are vying for a slice of the radio spectrum pie. But the bodies responsible for coordinating the use of these frequencies have many challenges ahead, including increased demand for an already over saturated good, coordination across multiple countries and regions, and testing the quality and capabilities of LEO satellites to transmit data. This blog will explore these challenges and opportunities of spectrum allocation for LEO satellites and how it shapes the future of broadband services.
Orbiting between 160 to 2,000 kilometers, or nearly 100 to 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface, LEO satellites have many benefits over traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites that orbit at altitudes closer to 36,000 kilometers. Their proximity to Earth ensures minimal lag time or low latency for fast communication or data transfers. This closeness may help LEO satellites avoid certain disruptions, such as solar flares or other atmospheric events that could degrade signals and disrupt communication. LEO satellites move quickly around the planet, unlike GEO satellites which are stationary. Their orbits enable global coverage but also have further implications for international cooperation.
One of the main advantages of using LEO satellites for communications is that they provide broadband coverage to remote or hard-to-reach areas. Their global coverage makes them well-suited for providing rural areas, which often lack access to high-speed traditional broadband networks. LEO satellites can also supplement coverage if natural disasters or damages, such as earthquakes or storms, disrupt terrestrial infrastructure. While wildfires swept across the Upper Northwest United States, LEO satellites provided vital connectivity to first responders and residents in need.
Benefits and Challenges
The technology has overcome many obstacles to achieve reliable use and is continuing to improve on optimizing its capabilities. Data throughput, or capacity to transfer data, has significantly improved partly due to signals becoming more direct and powerful, as well as inter-satellite links (ISLs) that enhance the capacity of a satellite and its transmission rate. In addition, large constellations made up of thousands of small satellites will be able to deliver much faster speeds once fully deployed, up to 1 Gbps, helping to deliver more reliable internet for more users on the ground.
The use of LEO satellites for broadband communications also raises some challenges, particularly when it comes to spectrum allocation. Increasing demand for radio spectrum accompanies a rising number of wireless broadband and telecommunication technologies. The radio spectrum is the range of electromagnetic frequencies used for wireless communication and is a limited resource. As more satellites are launched into low Earth orbit, they are competing with not only other satellites but may also compete with fixed wireless services. The increasing demand for the remaining available spectrum can lead to interference and other problems. The FCC has proposed measures to ensure fair spectrum allocation, making Ku-, Ka-, and V-bands (frequencies ranges in the high- to mid-bands) available for sharing between terrestrial and satellite services, and consider rulemaking for other, more desirable frequencies. However, as more LEO satellite constellations launch over the next few years, over-congestion of the spectrum will become increasingly apparent as it could degrade the quality of services. Satellite companies have also argued for access to higher frequencies of spectrum, claiming the technology can produce greater bandwidth with more throughput at these higher bands. However, this may come with significant engineering issues and higher costs, concerns the FCC must consider when permitting access.
To address these issues, governments and regulatory bodies worldwide have been working to develop new strategies for spectrum allocation. This includes the development of new technologies and techniques for managing the use of spectrum, as well as allocating specific frequency bands. For instance, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) manages the spectrum allocation for federal agencies. It is responsible for assigning spectrum frequencies and IT systems for federal use but claims its process “relies on manual reviews of frequency requests and manual input of data” and that “automation could reduce errors and speed the process.” Modern tools could help enable sharing of a limited spectrum and improve efficiency. The same could be said for the non-federal management of this vital resource, which is conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Earlier this year, the FCC and NTIA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to signal coordinated efforts to identify best practices and technologies to enhance spectrum use. Advancements in satellite design can also allow for more efficient use of the available spectrum. For example, new frequency reuse techniques can enable multiple satellites to use the same frequency band in different geographic locations or new modulation schemes that can transmit more data using the same or less spectrum.
As mentioned earlier, there is an international component to the spectrum debate. While the U.S. government has its frequency allocation, spectrum assignments must also be shared with global competitors. International organizations, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), are essential for coordinating how scarce spectrum is allocated fairly and effectively. The ITU is responsible for global satellite spectrum allocation and managing requests or disputes among member states. In the race to deploy 5G networks and future generations of wireless internet, the U.S. needs to develop intelligent spectrum strategies that consider LEO satellite technology needs alongside all of its innovative networks.
Overall, LEO satellites have the potential to provide broadband access to remote and underserved areas, but this will require careful planning and coordination to ensure that the available spectrum is used efficiently and effectively. This will require collaboration between satellite operators, regulators, and other stakeholders to develop a sustainable and equitable approach to deploying LEO satellites for broadband access.
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