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Policymakers oblige 5G satellite aspirants

NASA recently offered a very chilling assessment of SpaceMobile's satellite ambitions: The space agency wrote just last month that SpaceMobile's proposal "would present an unacceptably high risk of a catastrophic debris-producing collision."

On Thursday, just a few weeks later, the agency is singing a much different tune.

"NASA has since begun collaborating with AST [the company backing SpaceMobile] to facilitate the sharing of data and conjunction mitigation best practices, which, over time, we believe will enable safe operations in space and promote mutual success," a NASA spokesperson wrote in response to questions from Light Reading.

NASA did note that its initial SpaceMobile conclusions were based on "a very limited amount of information."

Nonetheless, the agency's change in tone coincides with a new release from SpaceMobile touting its collaboration efforts with NASA and a recent Senate appropriations bill that encourages funding "for innovative technologies designed to provide US citizens with space-based broadband communications to their existing mobile devices without the need for traditional ground infrastructure," according to SpaceMobile.

The about-face is just the latest signal from policymakers that satellite Internet providers of all shapes and sizes are welcome in Washington. That's noteworthy considering worries that the thousands and thousands of new satellites scheduled to go into orbit in the coming years could cause troubles for everything from astronomy to GPS.

Those concerns are being addressed, according to some in the space: "NASA works closely with other government agencies, international partners and private industry to ensure the continued operation of a safe orbital environment," the agency wrote Thursday.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the companies working to add satellites to the 5G industry have been cheering policymakers across Washington. "We rejoiced," wrote Lynk CEO Charles Miller in March of new FCC rules lowering satellite paperwork fees from $471,575 to just $30,000.

"That is a fee reduction on startup ventures of more than 90%," Miller noted.

Miller explained that Lynk is already testing its own satellites with NASA. Both Lynk and SpaceMobile want to beam 5G connections from their satellites down to users on Earth, without requiring those users to buy new phones.

"We have developed technology that will allow everyone's existing cellphone to stay connected, everywhere in the world, all the time. No change to your phone," Miller wrote in March.

"We are pleased to see strong US bipartisan support for an innovative space-based wireless communications approach that ties directly to our business model," said SpaceMobile's Abel Avellan in a release Thursday.

Just this week, the FCC took another step toward easing the regulatory landscape for satellite operators by voting to permit satellite operations in the 17.3–17.7GHz band for downlink communications.

"The satellite industry is expected to continue growing at a record-setting pace, and the commission's proposed changes would help operators to hit the ground running with greater spectrum flexibility and a streamlined licensing process that is focused on getting Americans connected at greater speeds and lower costs," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

US policymakers aren't alone. For example, Telesat announced earlier this month that the Canadian government will provide subsidized broadband Internet services to rural communities in the country as part of a $600 million, 10-year contract with the company. Specifically, Telesat will provide a "dedicated pool" of broadband capacity from its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for rural communities at "greatly reduced rates," according to SpaceNews.

Some initial results from LEO providers help highlight why policymakers might be willing to bend over backward on the issue.

"It's just a moral imperative that we find solutions," Mike Adkins told Cnet. Adkins is the director of communications for the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, which recently inked a deal with SpaceX's Starlink to connect 45 families to the company's brand new LEO satellite Internet service.

SpaceX, it's worth noting, is the same company that just this week delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station in NASA's first-ever use of a privately operated spacecraft. It's also worth noting that the FCC recently allowed Starlink to participate in its massive, $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, albeit after some initial trepidation.

"We have so many kids who can't connect with school once they leave the school building," Adkins explained of the district's deal with Starlink.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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