FCC proposes to ease direct satellite-to-phone communications

Coyotes Familiarize with new 5G Equipment

U.S. Marines with Tactical Training and Exercise Control Group (TTECG), familiarize themselves with 5G-enabled devices at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC), Twentynine Palms, Aug 16, 2022. A discrete 5G network was designed, coordinated, and tested at MCAGCC to enhance TTECG’s ability to communicate and adjudicate during Service Level Training Exercises. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isaiah Brummett)

SATELLITE 2023 — The Federal Communications Commission today agreed to propose a new licensing rule that would ease the development of direct satellite links to handheld devices such as phones and tablets for 5G communications — a potential the Defense Department is exploring for military use.

“There’s a lot of interest by the DoD,” Rick Lober, vice president for defense programs at Hughes Network Systems, told Breaking Defense on Wednesday during the Satellite 2023 conference. “It helps solve their terminal problem, that they’ve been living with for a lot of years, of very expensive terminals that are all proprietary systems.”

The FCC is asking for industry comment on the its plan that would, in essence, allow satellites to use radio frequency spectrum that is now slated for use by providers of terrestrial mobile wireless communications. The commission regulates use of the RF spectrum by telecommunications companies, both those operating satellite and terrestrial fixed or mobile networks.

“The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted today proposes a framework through which satellite operators collaborating with terrestrial service providers would be able to obtain FCC authorization to operate space stations on certain currently licensed, flexible-use spectrum allocated to terrestrial services. The Commission is proposing to add a mobile-satellite service allocation on some terrestrial flexible-use bands,” the FCC said in a press release announcing today’s decision.

The change would allow mobile phone companies to expand their services via satellite links primarily in remote areas where access is difficult or non-existent, and increase the availability of emergency communications to consumers, the FCC explained. However, the commission also is seeking “to build a record on whether the framework can be extended to other bands, locations, and applications that might be supported by such collaborations.”

The issue of partnerships between SATCOM operators and wireless telecoms providers was a major topic of discussion at the Satellite 2023 conference, with a lot of buzz and debate about the potential future commercial market. Such deals have been popping up at an increased rate over the past few years, including between T-Mobile and SpaceX, Qualcomm and Iridium, and one linking Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and satellite start-up Omnispace.

Pentagon interest also came through clearly at the conference, and earlier this month a senior Space Force official announced that the service intends later this year to request bids from providers of wireless phones enabled to connect with satellite networks.

However, government, military and industry officials speaking at Satellite 2023 over the past three days all recognized that there also are a number of challenges for military operations. A key problem with commercial wireless 5G is the need for large number of cell tows to propagate the signal, the officials explained. Another, that applies to satellite-to-wireless 5G devices is cybersecurity.

“From an Army use perspective, I’m kind of torn in two ways,” Col. Joseph “Ward” Roberts, assistant head of the the Army’s Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T), told a panel on Tuesday.

He explained that the idea of simply adopting commercial 5G is attractive, for a number of reasons. First, “providing capability that allows us to get the throughput load from a scale and capacity that 5G brings,” and low cost commercial can bring it “down to that soldier edge brings a tremendous opportunity” to keep those soldiers better informed and allow them to better communicate local conditions back to the commanders so they can “make timely informed decisions.”

In addition, Ward said, it greatly enhances the ability of US forces to connect to coalition partners who cannot afford to develop militarized, highly encrypted communications capabilities.

On the other hand, he explained, terrestrial 5G wireless requires certain kinds of supporting infrastructure, and “those digital form factors and that technical approach don’t adapt easily do the disconnected environment that a brigade combat team would be operating in.” Thus, he added, the Army is “kind of on the edge” between wanting to use commercial 5G services and needing certain bespoke services for some types of operations.

Lober told Breaking Defense that for combat operations, the Army for example would “need a ruggedized phone” that uses a “fairly simple operating system,” although he noted that those do exist.

Further, he said, “security is always one of the questions that comes up” because the frequencies used by wireless links are easily detected and “open to jamming.”

Hughes since last year has been working with DISH Wireless and its parent firm, satellite operator EchoStar, to provide a bespoke, cyber-protected SATCOM-to-wireless 5G network for the Navy at Whidbey Island Naval Station, Wash., as part of the Pentagon’s high priority experimental effort to bring modern, high-speed connectivity to bases around the country.

Another little understood challenge with direct satellite-to-phone operations, Lober said, is that currently there isn’t a 5G operating standard that would “be able to take for example, a Samsung phone and an Apple phone, and connect multiple networks” of communications satellites. This, he explained, means that for the moment a DoD user would be stuck with one satellite network and one phone provider — which in a way defeats the Pentagon’s desire of getting away from vendor-locked SATCOMs.

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