A sky full of satellites?

July 11, 2022
As more satellites enter orbit, the more international regulations matter.

Following opening remarks by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Berlin Air Show ILA, the show welcomed not only the satellite community but also the global defense industry with their latest fighter jets and huge cargo planes. Drone defense with lasers as small as 7.5 kW is now an established product offered by the Israelian company Rafael. Complementing it, promising startups are using drones to save lives.

Launching a satellite network

Within the satellite community, a new star is rising: Rivada Space Networks plans to launch a network of 600 satellites within the next six years. Its parent company Rivada Networks is a U.S.-based provider of secure telecommunication services with additional offices in Ireland.

Rivada acted as a “white knight” in an escalating conflict between German and Chinese shareholders of the German satellite company KLEO Connect. Its German founders were afraid their Chinese financiers would do their own thing with the radio licenses, which the founders had filed through Liechtenstein. After growing suspicions, the German founders managed to save the project at the last minute, it seems. With the approval of the Liechtenstein regulator, the licenses were transferred to the newly founded Rivada Space Networks.

Why are these licenses so important?

Previously, the low Earth orbits about 500 to 1000 km above ground were governed by a few nations and their military and scientific programs. Commercial satellites for TV or telecom joined in recent decades, but the preferred geostationary orbits are at 36,000 km.

When the Starlink project came along, it changed the game. But unlike the conquest of the American West, these space cowboys had to abide certain laws when conquering orbits with thousands of satellites for internet access.

One is regulated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency for information and communication technologies. The ITU Radio Regulations ensure the efficient use of radio-frequency spectrum without interference. If, for example, one satellite flies over another, the ITU license regulates which of them will have to shut off during flyover. If both keep sending, their transmission rate may drop due to interference effects.

The satellite with the ITU-licensed priority keeps sending. ITU grants these licenses to national governments only, and the priority of license holders follows the order of filings. The German founders of KLEO Connect realized that early on and got two licenses from Liechtenstein. Starlink got licenses from Norway with a filing date in between the two licenses of Liechtenstein.

Rivada’s next plans

To avoid the warehousing of radio frequencies, “the frequencies assigned in response to a satellite filing must be brought into use within a specified timeframe (currently seven years from the date of receipt of the request) or else their validity expires,” according to the ITU. So Rivada Space Networks must launch the first precursors by 2025, with service starting in 2026, and the full constellation of 600 satellites by summer 2028.

Severin Meister, CEO of Rivada Space Networks, says they are currently in a tendering procedure with various prime contractors. “Satellite production is where automotive industry was 100 years ago,” he adds. “It just turns to mass production.” Based on capacities built for the other networks, he is optimistic the hardware will be delivered in time.

His business model differs from what Starlink and OneWeb are planning. “We want to address large companies and resellers primarily,” Meister says.

The network will be inherently secure through its point-to-point connection without ground gateways. Latency should be less than 200 ms, targeting 20 ms—faster than submarine cables. Another first will be full laser communication between the satellites.

Beyond the hardware configuration, Rivada Space Networks is rapidly building its staff base.

Although financed from America and overseen by a board of directors with lots of American top brass, Rivada is a European company with offices in Munich and Berlin, Germany. It remains to be seen if they can achieve their ambitious goals.

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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