UK regulator Ofcom seeks more powers to deal with mega constellations

Operator shall talk unto operator or the big stick will be wielded


UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom has kicked off a consultation process regarding licence applications for non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems such as Starlink and OneWeb.

The consultation period lasts until 20 September, and the agency has said it will not be processing any applications for NGSO licences until the deadline passes.

The changes hint at the Wild West of NGSO. Ofcom wants to include a check that systems can coexist "without degrading consumer services." A check that granting a licence won't restrict competition is also on the wish list as well as publishing applications and giving a period for comment from stakeholders.

The new licence conditions will allow Ofcom to deal with local cases of interference and, perhaps most ambitiously of all, "require technical cooperation between operators."

There are set to be plenty of NGSO systems in orbit over the coming years. SpaceX's Starlink is not a million miles away from hitting the 2,000 mark by itself already and, according to Ofcom's figures, its initial constellation will number 4,408. Amazon's fleet will consist of 3,236 satellites, and OneWeb will eventually hit 648.

"The more dynamic nature of NGSO satellite systems introduces new challenges for managing spectrum," said Ofcom.

OneWeb, Kepler (an IoT service with an initial constellation of 140 satellites), and Starlink are already NGSO licensees.

The problem that Ofcom is trying to deal with is well known. While a Geostationary satellite sits in the same part of the sky, a NGSO satellite moves across the sky and must be tracked by either the gateway station or user terminal. There is a risk that satellites from multiple operators might pass through the same bit of a sky at the same time, resulting in an "in-line event" as the spacecraft line up. The consequence is interference and iffy connectivity.

While irritating for individual customers, gateways can serve many users, all of which could suffer problems in uplink, downlink, or both.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) usually deals with satellite operators but Ofcom described coordination between NGSO systems as "challenging." Some companies are firehosing satellites into orbit while others might take a few more years.

"We are therefore concerned that NGSO satellite services could be deployed before an appropriate level of coordination has been possible with other operators," said Ofcom, which stands to gain a bigger stick with which to beat operators should issues arise in the UK.

The Register contacted OneWeb and SpaceX for comment on the proposed changes, but have yet to receive a reply. ®

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