The FCC has officially proposed, and voted unanimously to move forward with, a framework under which satellites can communicate directly with smartphones in a structured and useful way.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, circulated earlier this month and formally voted on today, is essentially a complete first public draft of what the FCC hopes to accomplish by establishing rules and guidelines around this emerging area of communication.

Apple already made the news with a dramatic rescue made possible by its new emergency satellite feature, and companies like Lynk and AST SpaceMobile are working on providing universally accessible two-way data anywhere in the world. T-Mobile and SpaceX have said they plan to test their own Starlink-based system this year, and plenty of others are looking to enter the fray.

There’s still the matter of how this space-based connectivity would integrate with existing systems. Our mobile networks run on very carefully defined frequencies so that phones and towers don’t interfere with one another; including satellites that have totally different frequencies and signal powers is no small matter.

“The FCC seeks to establish clear and transparent processes to support supplemental coverage from space,” wrote the agency in a news release. “Satellite operators collaborating with terrestrial service providers would be able to obtain FCC
authorization to operate space stations on certain currently licensed, flexible-use spectrum allocated to terrestrial services.”

The way it’s proposed, a satellite operator would essentially work with a terrestrial provider to adjust the phone’s settings so that when no ordinary signal is available, it officially switches over to a satellite signal. What’s important here is making sure there’s a process to follow, providing structure and accountability. We can’t have pirate satellites zooming around blasting no-signal devices with ads for instant connectivity, right? (Though we probably will eventually.)

The four sitting FCC Commissioners (the fifth would have been Gigi Sohn had her confirmation not been indefinitely stonewalled) all agreed that this was a good start — but that they would need to be ready to act should the circumstances change.

“The framework we are proposing is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. We are going to lead,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in her statement accompanying the vote. “By providing clear rules, I believe we can kick start more innovation in the space economy while also expanding wireless coverage in remote, unserved, and underserved areas. We can make mobile dead zones a thing of the past.”

“The item we adopt today recognizes that consumers don’t care whether the signal was beamed to their device from a tower on top of an office building or from a satellite orbiting the Earth. They only care that they have access to an affordable, high-quality connection,” concurred Commissioner Brendan Carr.

Commissioner Simington also approved, though with the reservation that the industries in question need to experiment and weigh in for the framework to evolve properly and accommodate the fast-moving tech.

“Building a framework that works for every conceivable commercial arrangement and every technology is no easy feat and risks bogging down progress as we work toward new rules,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “To address this concern, the NPRM smartly proposes a narrow set of initial entry criteria so that we can move full speed ahead on proposals that raise the fewest technical challenges, while seeking comment on how one day we might broaden the scope.”

He and Simington agreed that it’s important to note that the rules don’t prohibit innovations that may not fit exactly within these initial parameters.

Rosenworcel added that, properly handled, this could be the beginning of a truly multi-modal framework for wireless communication, less focused on the nature of the infrastructure itself and more so on what it accomplishes.

“We have an opportunity to bring our spectrum policies into the future and move past the binary choices between mobile spectrum on the one hand or satellite spectrum on the other,” she said. “That means we can reshape the airwave access debates of old and develop new ways to get more out of our spectrum resources. This is exciting, so let’s get to it.”


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