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Impending Regulatory Skyline: Mega-constellations and the Digital Divide

Analysis

Eszter Csapó, Senior Counsel, Technology, Media and Telecommunications, CMS and Péter Homoki, Senior Counsel, Technology, Media and Telecommunications, CMS

Eliminating the digital divide and providing broadband access to everyone is one of today’s priorities, especially in the most powerful countries like the United States and China.

Even if the number of people who do not currently have access to copper, fiber, or mobile broadband is relatively low in these countries, fulfilling their needs is so high on the agenda that mega-constellations of satellites are to be launched for this purpose. These constellations, consisting of hundreds to tens of thousands of satellites, orbit the Earth between 328-2,000 km above sea level (in low Earth orbit (LEO) at speeds exceeding 27,000 km/h, linked with each other, with ground stations, and with end users.

SpaceX has cited the public interest of “quickly delivering broadband to more Americans in remote areas of the United States,” while other players claim their system will help close the digital divide globally.

Although the EU is also launching a smaller constellation of 170 satellites (the new IRIS² project, Regulation (EU) 2023/588), this will be dedicated to governmental services and secure communications. However, specific EU projects earlier, such as BRESAT, investigated the role of satellite broadband in bridging the digital divide.

Many may remember providers like Teledesic and Celestri from the end of the 1990s, which tried to provide “internet in the sky.” Due to the consistent growth in the space economy, launch costs have fallen, and it is feasible to put orders of magnitude more satellites in orbit. Currently, there are 5,000 Starlink units from SpaceX above us. According to a European Space Agency (ESA) forecast, more than 75,000 satellites will be in orbit by the end of 2032.

That may mean dozens of shiny new objects visible to the naked eye in the night sky. LEO will be a busy place, and this surge in new constellations is also expected to leave its mark on the red tape needed for operators to proceed. For these global endeavors, the primary authority for licensing satellite frequencies and setting orbital parameters is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Commercial operators must apply to the ITU with the involvement of national authorities. The number of filings (coordination requests and notifications) to use these limited resources has shot up in the last few years.

Apart from being allocated resources by the ITU, operators must also comply with considerable extra paperwork set out in different international space law instruments (mainly administered by the United Nations). These include the obligation to register space objects with a UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and measures to mitigate space debris. However, the national rules underlying these requirements are not harmonized, and in many countries, including Hungary, there are no specific “space law” provisions in place.

With the increasing congestion in LEO, space debris measures and “situational awareness” (space traffic management) are expected to become another significant regulatory area. Unfortunately, when a registered space object collides with anything at the relativistic speed of 35,000 km/h, it tends to break into tiny fragments, regardless of regulations.

Another problem is the re-entry of LEO satellites. The thin atmosphere drags these objects back into the denser atmosphere in a year or so, hopefully burning these up as planned. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that a few components will survive re-entry, and casualty figures may become too high to be ignored for those on the ground or in the air.

Based on the number of satellites to be launched, fierce competition is guaranteed in satellite broadband. This might drive prices and bandwidth to a level that will be appealing to more users than ten years ago. However, the problems arising from a crowded orbit will lead not only to new research but also, in time, to new and more accessible regulation. While the essential laws will remain at the international level, national administrations will still have to provide first-line support.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of November 3, 2023.

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