No one denies that the Soviet Union put the first man-made object into orbit nor, a few wackos aside, that American astronauts were first to reach the moon.
But deciding which of three companies’ new broadband internet satellites was first to launch is proving somewhat more contentious.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, SoftBank’s OneWeb and Canadian start-up Kepler Communications are all claiming that they launched the first satellites capable of delivering high-speed internet using Ku-band (12-18 GHz) frequencies.
At stake is far more than just bragging rights or national pride. According to US law, the first operator to launch gets first choice of back-up spectrum should there be any interference between the rival systems—a near certainty given the more than 10,000 satellites they intend to deploy.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now finds itself in the bizarre position of having to rule on something that might seem utterly obvious but that will affect the future of all three companies.
It all seemed much simpler around the turn of the millennium, when two companies, Teledesic and Skybridge, announced plans for a few hundred low earth orbit (LEO) internet satellites.
The FCC quickly settled on a plan for them to share the available spectrum. All the satellites could use the entire frequency range in the US, only switching to non-interfering frequencies during in-line events—when a ground station happened to line up with satellites from both systems. This would happen just six percent of the time, the FCC concluded.
In those rare cases, the first operator to have launched would get to choose which half of the spectrum it would prefer to use. “But as there is no difference in quantity or kind between the halves of the spectrum,” the FCC wrote, “This first choice, a kind of coordination priority, has little significance.”
In the end, it didn’t matter at all, as Teledesic and Skybridge both ran out of money before launching a single commercial satellite.
But fast forward to 2019, and the significance of the FCC’s decision is looming much larger.
“The rules were made for two systems and for just a few hundred satellites,” says Tim Farrar, president of satellite and telecommunications consulting firm TMF Associates. “If you’ve got thousands going around, you’ll have conjunctions happening almost all the time, and then you’re effectively splitting the band in two almost everywhere.”
In a worst case scenario, operators would be operating with half the spectrum, and effectively half the capacity, their systems were designed for. Suddenly, the quality of an operator’s “home spectrum”—the dedicated frequencies it can retreat to—looks far more important.
“Some portions of the Ku-band have more terrestrial incumbent users than other portions,” wrote OneWeb in a letter to the FCC. “Home spectrum matters... because it allows an operator to maximize network capacity and, in turn, service to customers by choosing the portion of the frequency band in which it prefers to operate.”
Another issue is that only the first two systems can choose home spectrum bands anchored to either end of the available spectrum. “If there’s going to be more than two operators, you really, really want to be one of the first two,” says Farrar. “If you’re the third, you could be all hopping all over the place.”
The home spectrum rules only come into play if the operators cannot agree beforehand how to coordinate with one another’s systems. But while everyone agrees that would be the best solution for all concerned, the challenges of such complex negotiations between multiple operators are considerable. “With operators all coming online at different times, we anticipate conversations will always be ongoing,” OneWeb told IEEE Spectrum.
In order to hedge their bets, SpaceX, OneWeb and Kepler would all very much like to be first in line to choose their home spectrum.
After launching its initial six satellites in February, OneWeb sent a letter to the FCC asserting victory. It wrote: “OneWeb hereby notifies the Commission that the first space station in the OneWeb System has met the requirement to be launched and capable of operating.... [Therefore] OneWeb hereby claims first priority in home spectrum selection in the Ku-band.”
In May, Kepler put in its own claim, noting that its KIPP spacecraft reached orbit more than a year earlier, in January 2018, and had since been carrying out commercial operations. “As far as Kepler is aware, this launch represented the first deployment of a Ku-band satellite within the Processing Round, and as such it should have first priority in any selection of home spectrum within Ku-band,” the company wrote to the FCC. “Needless to say, it is disappointing to see OneWeb try and undercut Kepler’s position.”
A few weeks after that, SpaceX made its own case. Despite launching its first experimental satellite in February 2018 (after Kepler), and its first 60 commercial satellites in May 2019 (after OneWeb), SpaceX believes that under FCC regulations, it still officially launched first.
“The scope of this rule makes clear that to be considered ‘capable of operating,’ an operator must not only launch satellites but must also communicate with a U.S.-licensed earth station in the specific frequency band,” it wrote to the Commission.
Although OneWeb applied for an FCC license for its earth stations before SpaceX, it has not yet been granted. SpaceX, however, applied for and was granted a special temporary license to communicate with its first batch of satellites shortly before their launch.
OneWeb and Kepler dispute this interpretation, calling it “flawed” and “extraordinary,” with both sides insisting that their readings embody common sense. SpaceX notes that a foreign operator that launched first but had no intention of offering service in the US could hold domestic systems hostage. Kepler, on the other hand, points out that “to preserve fairness... home spectrum selection order cannot be based...on arbitrary barriers such as approval delays.”
SpaceX has another Starlink mission scheduled for September, and OneWeb hopes to launch 30 satellites at a time on future rockets. With Tim Farrar estimating that the FCC could take 6 to 12 months to rule on home spectrum priority, the skies could be full of satellites by the time we find out, officially, who actually launched first.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.