The Case for Earth Station FCC License Modifications

By | February 1, 2009 | Telecom, Via Satellite

Earth station licenses are intangible but valuable assets, and like any other company asset, an Earth station license can depreciate in value or lose its value completely if not properly maintained.

It had been several months since I had moved to a new house in Houston. One day while driving I was stopped by a traffic officer. After examining my documents, the officer asked if I still lived at the address shown on my driver’s license. I answered in the negative, and what followed was a requirement for me to make an involuntary donation to the city of Houston for failing to keep my license updated. The duty to modify FCC licenses when certain circumstances change is no different.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates communications by the granting of licenses. According to Black’s Law dictionary, a license is a "revocable permission to commit some act that would otherwise be unlawful." FCC licenses outline precisely the nature of permitted transmissions. Any substantial deviation from the license parameters constitutes an unlawful transmission. Therefore, every time there are certain modifications to the Earth station characteristics, the license also must be modified.

Situations Requiring License Modifications

FCC Earth station licenses are valid for 15 years, but events along the way may require such licenses to be modified. FCC regulations outline the Earth station system changes that lead to a requirement to modify a license.

  • Increase in EIRP: An increase in data rate can require an increase in effective isotropic radiated power (EIRP). Similarly, a change in modulation or forward error correction can lead to an increase in EIRP. To the extent that any system change causes an increase in EIRP and this increased EIRP exceeds the limit in the license, the license must be modified.

  • Increase in EIRP Density: Because EIRP and signal bandwidth combine to determine EIRP density, changes in modems, transponders, counterpart receive stations sizes, and other factors can cause EIRP density to increase — sometimes independently of EIRP. If a system hardware or setting change leads to an increase in EIRP density and the increase exceeds the EIRP density limitation in the license, then the license must be modified.

  • Change of Satellites: The use of a satellite not listed in the license requires a license modification. Some licenses are granted for ALSAT operation, meaning all U.S.-owned satellites. This is common with Ku-band licenses. However, C-band licenses may have a satellite arc limitation when the entire visible arc cannot be cleared during frequency coordination. In that case, operation outside the coordinated arc requires a license modification. A modification is also required when international satellites must be used and such satellites are not listed in the license.

  • Change of Frequencies: It is advantageous to license the entire frequency band, be it C-, Ku- or Ka-band. But for frequency bands that are shared, such as C-band, it is not always possible to do this because sometimes the entire band cannot be cleared during frequency coordination. In these instances, operation outside the coordinated band requires a license modification.

  • Change of Location: Minor movement of a licensed Earth station system is permitted. However, any relocation greater than 10 seconds in latitude or longitude for Ku-band, or 1 second for C-band, requires a license modification.

Action Required

Once a system change is identified as requiring a license modification, it is important to understand specifically what kind of regulatory action is required. Some changes require only after-the-fact notification to the FCC; while others require prior FCC approval. Therefore, it is essential to consult with your regulatory counsel ahead of making Earth station changes as some license modifications may take months to grant.

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