Satellite communication and regulation

By on 9 Aug 2021

Category: Tech matters

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There is now renewed interest in satellite Internet communication with the emergence of the new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) services such as Starlink and OneWeb, and others such as Project Kuiper on the horizon. A lot of hopes are pinned on what they might do, not only for currently unserved parts of the planet, but also for places where the Internet exists, but is, well, maybe not quite to your liking.

Read: Starlink’s high-speed satellite Internet: What’s the catch?

Until now, satellite Internet was for those who couldn’t get fibre, DSL, or low-priced wireless/mobile Internet. Now it’s being touted as having better data rates than some terrestrial services. While that may not necessarily last forever (see my previous blog on the total system capacity of LEO systems in comparison to terrestrial systems), there is another aspect that deserves a bit of attention — whether you’ll be allowed to connect to the service at all, and whether you’ll be able to access what you currently can’t.

The key to all this is regulation, and it’s a messy subject.

Satellites use radio waves to communicate, and whatever signal a satellite is meant to listen to had better be the only signal within the satellite receiver’s bandwidth and receive range.

Similarly, we can’t have multiple adjacent satellites or close-by ground users transmit on the same channel to the same area on the ground as they’d cause interference to each other’s ground stations. So you can’t simply kick your bird into orbit and make it transmit all over the place on a frequency you’ve randomly chosen. You need to get frequencies allocated, and this generally involves the regulatory authorities for the economies you will operate your ground stations in, plus international coordination under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Much of this operates on a negotiated basis — nations attempt to grab as much spectrum over coffee as they can without upsetting other nations to the point where said other nations will start jamming or start a war.

Geostationary satellites can transmit to or receive from nearly half the planet, so their allocation of communication channels almost always affects multiple economies or even ITU regions. Satellites in other orbits end up flying over pretty much everywhere between two latitudes that depend on the satellite’s orbit inclination and orbital height. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they must use the same communication channel all the time; they can shift channels depending on the territory they currently operate over. This adds some flexibility, but also complexity. Either way, that regulation also puts a limit on achievable total data rates.

Read: GEO vs MEO: which satellite solution works best?

Having the frequency allocations sorted, there are more regulatory hurdles, though. Just because your satellite flies over my territory and is technically able to communicate with ground terminals on my patch doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily want you to offer that service to my citizens. That could be, for example, because I have a monopoly ISP that you’d be competing with, and I don’t want that competition because the Internet makes me money.

Or maybe I just don’t like the sort of information that your service might bring to my lands. Or I’m happy for you to do that only if you block access to certain services or sites. In the latter case, ideally, you’d put your gateway ground station on my patch and pay me to connect it to my firewall, so I can decide what my citizens get to read, hear, view and send.

Now this isn’t a new phenomenon under LEO, or even a satellite thing. Radio waves are delightfully ignorant of fences on the ground and grumpy officials in uniform. Being German, I’m only too aware of the role that Western TV played in the downfall of the German Democratic Republic: TV signals from the West had unfettered access through the iron curtain, down to the point where the city of Dresden was dubbed ‘Valley of the Clueles‘ by East Germans as its valley location put Dresden folk out of range of West German TV. In World War 2, Germans under Hitler risked their lives listening to the BBC. I suspect in some places, people still do.

Before satellite Internet, there was satellite TV, and signals there have also caused their fair share of regulatory response on the ground. Iran, for example, made it illegal in 1984 to possess or use satellite TV receivers, but large parts of the population continued watching.

With satellite Internet, breaking local laws and getting away with it isn’t quite that easy, not least because being an Internet host means that you also need to transmit, something that satellite TV doesn’t require from its viewers. This means emitting a signal that authorities can pick up and trace back to you (if with a little effort).

In fact, one doesn’t even have to be in an economy that doesn’t like a service in order to be affected by a ban. It’s enough to be in its airspace or on one of its planes. China for one used to ban foreign airlines overflying its territory from operating satellite-based inflight WiFi — I remember encountering this problem on a number of Lufthansa and ANA flights between Japan and Europe, for example, although I gather that at least Lufthansa was eventually granted access a few years ago. Similarly, being on a Chinese-registered plane anywhere means you’re behind China’s Great Firewall.

Starlink’s ‘Dishy’ antenna is known to have a built-in GPS receiver. Whether this is or will be used only to help the dish find satellites is a pertinent question. It’s equally possible that it’s also used to make sure your Dishy hasn’t left its assigned ‘cell’ — something that makes engineering sense in that it would help Starlink keep a cap on the number of active subscribers in a particular geographical area.

But it’s also conceivable that the position as seen by the GPS could be used to block service or content if you were to use Dishy in an economy that doesn’t want you to consume that service or content. Or, maybe worse for you, that the position could end up — legally or via security breach — in the hands of that economy’s authorities, leading to an early morning knock on your door.

Dr Ulrich Speidel is a senior lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Auckland with research interests in fundamental and applied problems in data communications, information theory, signal processing and information measurement. The APNIC Foundation has supported his research through its ISIF Asia grants.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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