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FCC approves Boeing satellites, rejecting SpaceX’s interference claims

A Boeing logo on the exterior of the company's headquarters.
Enlarge / Boeing office building in Arlington, Virginia.

Getty Images | Olivier Douliery

The Federal Communications Commission today gave Boeing permission to launch 147 broadband satellites. While that’s a fraction of the number of satellites approved for other low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, the decision allows Boeing to compete in the emerging LEO satellite broadband market.

“As detailed in its FCC application, Boeing plans to provide broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and professional users in the United States and globally,” the FCC said in its announcement approving the license.

The 147 planned satellites include 132 low-Earth satellites orbiting at an altitude of 1,056 km and 15 “highly inclined satellites” that would orbit at altitudes between 27,355 and 44,221 km. The FCC authorized Boeing to conduct space-to-Earth transmissions in the 37.5–42.0 GHz frequency bands and Earth-to-space operations in the 47.2–50.2 GHz and 50.4–51.4 GHz bands.

In its 2017 application to the FCC, Boeing said its plan to operate satellites at both high and low altitudes is “a cost-effective means to achieve global coverage.” The combination will “provide high-speed broadband communications to consumers wherever they are located, while also providing the benefits of very low latency through LEO communications,” Boeing said. Boeing previously proposed a constellation that could have included nearly 3,000 satellites, but it scaled back its plans.

SpaceX claimed interference

Starlink operator SpaceX claimed that Boeing’s plan would cause interference, but the FCC rejected SpaceX’s argument that Boeing should face additional requirements.

“SpaceX raises concerns about interference from Boeing’s uplink beams to its highly inclined satellites and recommends that Boeing utilize higher gain antennas on those satellites with corresponding reductions in uplink power levels. We decline to adopt SpaceX’s proposal,” the FCC said.

The FCC previously declined to adopt additional requirements to prevent interference in its rules for non-geostationary satellites, instead opting for a “framework for co-existence” that satellite companies would use to cooperate. That earlier decision factored into the FCC’s ruling against SpaceX’s request:

SpaceX provides no basis on this particular issue to warrant departure from the established framework already in place to address concerns regarding interference between NGSO [non-geostationary satellite orbit] systems, and to adopt a special condition on this grant. Pursuant to our rules, NGSO FSS [fixed satellite service] operators must coordinate in good faith the use of commonly authorized frequencies. When there is potential for interference, the parties involved must agree on measures to eliminate this interference (i.e., satellite diversity) or, in the absence of an agreement, be subject to certain default procedures. Accordingly, NGSO FSS operators must agree on measures to eliminate the risk of interference by taking into account each system’s power levels and design.

Objections from rival satellite operators are common in these proceedings. SpaceX recently blasted Amazon for objecting to Starlink plans, saying that Amazon was using an “obstructionist tactic” to delay a competitor. Amazon pointed out that SpaceX itself “routinely raises concerns with respect to its competitors’ currently filed plans, including with respect to interference.”

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