Earth Stations Go Airborne

In-flight broadband services for commercial airliners and private aircraft just got a boost. In December, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order implementing Ku-band rules for the operation of satellite earth stations on aircraft. This order will enhance competition and promote the widespread availability of Internet access to aircraft passengers. The era of low cost Internet access on airplanes is around the corner.

The new rules for Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (ESAA), as the FCC calls them, complete the trio of mobile satellite services in geostationary orbit: Earth Stations on Vessels (ESVs) and Vehicle Mounted Earth Stations (VMES), which the FCC implemented in 2005 and 2009, respectively.

Up until now, L-band licenses (1-2GHz) could be obtained from the FCC to offer connectivity to airborne aircraft over Mobile Satellite Services (MSS). Also, since 2001 the FCC has authorized the operation of earth stations on aircraft on an ad hoc basis. Essentially, the ESAA order standardizes the licensing process and provides efficiency and predictability. Therefore, the new rules will allow the FCC to process ESAA applications up to 50 percent faster and will speed the deployment of ubiquitous airborne broadband services, including Internet access.

The Frequencies

Unlike ESVs and VMES, the FCC did not authorize ESAAs to transmit on a primary status on the 14.0 – 14.5 GHz Ku-band. This means that ESAAs can only transmit on a secondary status and cannot claim interference protection from primary services; however, the FCC is also considering whether to change this band to primary status. By contrast, the 11.7 to 12.2 GHz standard Ku receive band did get primary status. The other receive bands, 10.95 – 11.2 GHz and 11.45 – 11.7 GHz, must operate on an unprotected basis.

Other Measures

ESAA’s rules are similar to those of ESVs and VMES. ESAA applicants must comply with the following characteristics:

  • Power Density: In order to protect adjacent satellites from harmful interference, ESAAs will be required to operate below prescribed power density envelopes.
  • Automatic Shut-off: Upon a deviation of 0.5 degrees from the target satellite, ESAAs must shut off transmission automatically.
  • Aircraft Tracking: ESAA locations must be logged together with other pertinent information.

Country Registration of Aircraft

Aircraft travel is international by nature. It is not confined to the borders of the United States, and the FCC is responsible for regulating ESAA on U.S.-registered aircraft regardless of where they travel. Unquestionably, ESAA onboard U.S.-registered aircraft will be required to obtain an FCC ESAA blanket license. However, because of the high potential for interference to adjacent satellites, the FCC is requiring ESAA on foreign-registered aircraft, which traverse U.S. airspace, to also follow FCC rules and license such antennas. While this may seem onerous, few, if any, aircraft operators are expected to seek an ESAA license directly. ESAA services are usually procured from vendors who will seek ESAA licenses from the FCC. Hence, foreign-registered aircraft can seek service from licensed ESAA operators.

Conclusion

ESAAs represent the “third leg” of mobile applications on geostationary Fixed Satellite Service (FSS); ESVs and VMES being the other two legs. By means of satellite antennas mounted on the exterior of aircraft, satellites will be able to facilitate communication with onboard passengers and crew using mobile devices. Advancements in antenna tracking technology have made possible mobile service in the FSS with manageable risk of harmful interference. This has prompted the FCC to act and establish rules for these services. Regulators throughout the world should follow the FCC’s lead in establishing Ku-band rules for airborne stabilized satellite antennas.

Raul Magallanes runs a Houston-based law firm focusing on telecommunications law. He may be reached at +1 (281) 317-1397 or by email at raul@ rmtelecomlaw.com.

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