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FCC Releases the Draft Order for its Satellite-to-Cell Regulatory Framework

By Rachel Jewett | February 23, 2024

Satellite-to-cell graphic. Photo illustration: Via Satellite

The FCC released a draft of the final order for a new regulatory framework for satellite-to-cell coverage, ahead of the Commission’s March meeting. 

The FCC said that if approved, the report and order, Single Network Future: Supplemental Coverage from Space, would be the first domestic regulatory framework in the world focused on collaboration between satellite operators and cellular network providers for satellite-to-cell connectivity. 

Supplemental coverage from space (SCS) refers to terrestrial networks expanding/supplementing their networks with coverage from satellites. If adopted during the March 14 meeting, this order will adopt a spectrum use framework that would allow wireless companies to expand coverage to their subscribers through a collaboration with satellite operators via lease agreement or arrangement. 

According to the FCC, it will adopt a secondary, bi-directional, mobile-satellite service (MSS) allocation in certain frequency bands that have no primary, non-flexible-use legacy incumbents. In certain bands, it will only authorize SCS when spectrum holders within a defined geographically independent area lease the access to a satellite operator whose part 25 space station license includes these frequencies and the geographic area. 

It also includes interim 911 call and text requirements to route 911 calls and texts to a public safety answering point, and seeks further comment on 911 services for SCS. 

The FCC said SCS can be a life-saving service providing connection in remote locations outside of cellular networks. 

Satellite-to-cell is a rapidly evolving market in the satellite and wireless industries, as telcos and device and chip manufacturers like T-Mobile, Apple, and AT&T strike deals with satellite operators to provide satellite-to-cell service. Some approaches involve using licensed satellite spectrum, and others involve terrestrial spectrum — the situation the SCS intends to address. 

“A single network future is possible,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “By taking advantage of satellite connectivity, we can enhance our smartphones and get rid of ‘dead zones.’ This groundbreaking framework will ensure continued U.S. leadership and establish a clear and predictable regulatory approach to these partnerships in support of innovation and competition.”

This issue has bipartisan support, and Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington issued statements of support last year when the FCC released its notice of proposed rulemaking