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Emphasize Orbital Debris

Satellite Operators' Interference Friction Will Continue for Years

Expect continuing friction at the 2027 World Radiocommunication Conference and the WRC-31 between geostationary and non-geostationary orbit satellite operators over interference protections, River Advisors CEO Katherine Gizinski said. She and other panelists Tuesday at the SmallSat Symposium in Silicon Valley said those equivalent power flux density (EPFD) protection items were a hot-button issue at WRC-23. The FCC has seen constellation operators post-WRC-27 joust over EPFD limits (see 2401300032). Several panelists also discussed the changing availability of financing that helped launch numerous space startups in the past nine years.

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The EPFD issue featured multiple countries that are normally quiet at WRC speaking up, as they have vested interests in protecting geostationary orbit service and were worried about non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) mega constellations disrupting those GSO operations, said George John, a Hogan Lovells lawyer with space clients. Future agenda items for WRC-27 such as EPFD power-sharing were among the most hotly contested matters at WRC-23, said John. He said the Ka-band allocation for inter-satellite links could greatly benefit small satellite operators, and open the door to WRC-27 agenda items for L- and S-band frequency use for inter-satellite links.

Numerous operators seek spectrum for telemetry, tracking and control operations, given the lack of available capacity due to the coexistence of federal services, FCC Space Bureau Chief Technologist Whitney Lohmeyer said. She said the inter-satellite link agenda item will allow several smallsat operators to offload some data. WRC-23 was generally a big win for the space industry, she added. Adoption of a space sustainability resolution in conjunction with the ITU conference was particularly important to the U.S., she said.

Not enough venture capital funding is available to cover the commercial space plans of every company, said Brooke Stokes of McKinsey & Co. She said in the current high-inflation, capital-constrained environment, a greater emphasis is on sussing out true market demand than when the cost of borrowing money was cheaper. DOD procurement rules need improvement, said Abhishek Tripathi, director-mission operations, Space Science Lab at University of California, Berkeley. They remain biased toward large defense contractors even as the military is looking at smallsat operators for services and capacity, Tripathi said.

Several speakers discussed how SpaceX's Starship heavy launch rocket could drive a reversal in the satellite industry trend of smaller and lighter satellites if the rocket reduces launch prices significantly, as many predict. Curt Blake, formerly Spaceflight CEO and now a lawyer at Wilson Sonsini, said there might need to be serious competition to SpaceX for Starship pricing to go notably lower than the company's Falcon 9 pricing.

Tripathi said proliferation of satellites in low earth orbit has shown the need for good communications between satellite operators. He said the U.S. has made progress, but communication with operators internationally is a concern and needs improvement.

Blake said more emphasis is needed on orbital debris, given its large downside. He called for a bond mechanism where failure to bring down a satellite means the bond filed with a regulator, such as the FCC, is forfeited. The government regulator would put that money toward debris removal. Blake said that could help create a market for the debris removal industry.

While remote sensing is a big smallsat application, the big driver of revenue will be NGSO broadband telecom constellations, said BryceTech Director-Analytics Carie Mullins. The challenges to that market are numerous though, including whether underserved populations are sizable enough to build a profitable subscriber base, she said. The terrestrial broadband market is huge and growing, but satellite operators must reach a reasonable price point and address issues of availability and latency to tap into it, she said. Amazon will likely use the forthcoming Kuiper constellation in support of its huge cloud computing business, and that could generate new use cases and applications, Mullins said.