Who launched the first Ku-band satellite, and why does it matter?

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The race to put satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) is reaching its peak. Three companies are in the lead; Kepler, OneWeb and SpaceX. While all three are making great strides in bringing their LEO mega-constellations online, one question remains; who was the first?

Oneweb coverage
In the race for the LEO spectrum, who was first? Image: OneWeb

With SpaceX apparently now filing to launch as many as 30,000 additional satellites (on top of the 12,000 already approved) it’s starting to look as if space will be getting pretty crowded. While the physical ‘space’ of Earth’s orbit can accommodate such numbers with ease, the spectrum of frequencies for transmissions is somewhat more limited.

Back when LEO satellites were not much more than a concept on paper, a law was put in place to share up the spectrum quite simply. With just two main players in place, Teledesic and Skybridge, the rule was that whoever got there first would have the first choice over the spectrum. As such, the Ku-band was effectively divided into two, with the incumbent deciding which half it wanted to use.

However, both firms failed to launch even one satellite. Despite this, the rules have stayed, and now are more important than ever. As all three firms have plans to launch huge numbers of satellites, some tough decisions have got to be made. As IEEE Spectrum pointed out in a recent article,

“The rules were made for two systems and for just a few hundred satellites. 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.”

So who was first?

Back in February, OneWeb contacted the FCC laying claim to being the first. It had launched six initial satellites and wanted to stake its place in the spectrum. In the filing, it said,

“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…  OneWeb hereby claims first priority in home spectrum selection in the Ku-band.”

OneWeb satellite
Not a clear cut answer. Photo: OneWeb

However, OneWeb was not destined for an easy ride. Three months later, Kepler added its own claim to being the first, noting that its own KIPP spacecraft was placed in orbit more than a year prior to OneWeb.

Then came SpaceX, who argued that, despite launching after Kepler, it had undertaken communications before they did, and therefore had fulfilled the brief of the FCC’s ‘capable of operating’ first.

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Does it really matter?

In short, yes. It matters a whole lot to these three companies because the FCC decision will have a massive impact on how each of their businesses moves forward. In a letter to the FCC, OneWeb wrote,

“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.”

SpaceX Starlink
SpaceX want to launch 30,000 more Starlink satellites. Photo: SpaceX

Get Connected spoke to Kepler about the current situation, who told us,

“Having spectrum priority means that we get the first choice of back-up spectrum if there is any interference from a rival operator. As far as Kepler is aware, the launch of our first satellite in January 2018 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.”

Clearly, this is an important issue for all three of these companies. All three think they have a valid claim to being the incumbent, but it’s not a clear cut process.

And then there’s the issue with the fact that there are three, not two, companies vying for spectrum. When the rules were set up, with two companies in mind, one would take the high end of the spectrum, and the other the low. Now, with three competing, whoever is defined as being the third could have a serious problem on their hands. As Tim Farrar told IEEE Spectrum,

“If there’s going to be more than two operators, you really, really want to be one of the first two. If you’re the third, you could be all hopping all over the place.”

As Tim goes on to note, the FCC could take as long as 12 months to finalize its decision on who was first. By then, the skies could be jam-packed with satellites, and the implications for at least one of these three companies could be dire.

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