LEO satellite operators face regulatory challenge, panel hears

21 October 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The low Earth orbit satellite industry should be ready to face regulatory challenges, according to a Capacity Europe panel.

Gregg Daffner, president and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Satellite Communications Council (APSCC), drew the audience’s attention to a declaration by Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, that future Starlink satellites would have inter-satellite laser links.

Musk was asked how that would work with regulators if Starlink satellites could bypass local laws. “Elon Musk said; ‘They can shake their fist at the sky’,” reported Daffner in the panel.

“That was a cavalier refusal to accommodate regulatory requirements,” said Daffner. “I can’t imagine this is good public relations.” And it is becoming “a significant conflict”, especially for the regulators that license the launching of such satellite fleets, he noted.

Imran Malik, SVP of global fixed data at SES Networks, agreed: “Regulation is a big issue, and we can’t take it lightly.” He said the framework for low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites “is very new and we can’t take it lightly. It’s going to be a struggle.”

LEO is different from geostationary (GEO) satellites because the older generation had beams that could point at territories where the owners were licensed, said Daffner. “They can focus on places where there is business and ignore where there is no business.”

But LEO satellites necessarily cover 70% of places where there is no business – essentially the sea. “How sure are LEO operators that they get authorisation to provide services across the world?” he asked.

That’s not the only challenge in the move from GEO to LEO, the panel heard.

Eric Gillenwater, head of OneWeb’s global carrier partnerships, said the company is “really a production environment”, with its successful series of launches. “User terminals are a key component,” he said. “We are seeing major advances. We see lots, some publicly announced, some in development, to support lower entry [price] and TCO [total cost of ownership].”

Vikas Grover, CTO of Avanti Communications, said the satellite industry was following a similar investment path to that of telecoms years ago: “You see a repetition of the pattern. In telecoms we witnessed valuations that led to investments.”

Malik put some figures to what Grover said. In the years from 2005 to 2014 the satellite industry saw US$1 billion of investment, “but in the last five years we’ve see $17 billion in investment. Our industry is becoming mainstream. The technology is now there to make this a reality.”

 The panel takes place on 21 October from 15:05