Looking to the Skies: The FCC Seeks Additional Information on Potential Stratospheric-Based Communications Platforms and Services

On November 2, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC’s) Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (“Bureau”) published a public notice in the Federal Register focused on asking whether the 71-76 GHz, 81-86 GHz, 92-94 GHz, and the 94.1-95 GHz bands (“70/80/90 GHz Bands”) could be used to provide broadband Internet access to consumers and communities that may otherwise lack robust, consistent connectivity.” The Commission is particularly interested whether stratospheric-based platforms, such as High Altitude Platform Stations (“HAPS”), which operate above twenty kilometers (approximately 65,000 feet), could be deployed for this purpose in the 70/80/90 GHz Bands. Comments are due by December 2, 2021, and replies by January 3, 2022.

The 70/80/90 GHz Bands are allocated on a co-primary basis for Federal and non-Federal use, for terrestrial, satellite, radio astronomy and radiolocation uses. For nearly twenty years, there has been a non-exclusive light” licensing and registration scheme in the 70/80/90 GHz Bands for high-capacity, ground-based point-to-point links that can be used for any non-broadcast purpose. In a June 2020 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in WT Docket No. 20133, the Commission launched consideration of changes to the 70/80/90 GHz antenna standards and the link registration processes which proponents believed would increase the utility of the bands. But the record also affirmed that other stakeholders envisioned additional uses of the bands, which they claimed would be compatible with the ground-based point-to-point links such as using the 70/80/90 GHz Bands for point-to-point links to endpoints in motion to facilitate broadband service to ships and aircraft or for high-capacity links between points on the ground using stratospheric platforms.

Now, a year later, the Bureau is particularly interested in the feasibility of permitting HAPS or other stratospheric-based platform services in these bands” and whether these services could be introduced compatibly with other services in the bands. Among other subjects, the Bureau asks how stratospheric platforms would be used in the bands (including information system operating parameters), what services the platforms can support (e.g., commercial, private, or governmental uses), and whether HAPS or other stratospheric platforms are commercially viable in light of several previous stratospheric platform advocates have indicated they are no longer actively pursuing their plans. The Bureau also asks whether, if it were to authorize stratospheric communications platforms to use 70/80/90 GHz Bands, the FCC should impose certain technical limitations or restrictions on the deployment of such services to protect incumbent operations, such as altitude restrictions, power limits, transmitter design considerations, directional constraints, additional emission limits, coordination, or other requirements. Much like a rulemaking notice, the Public Notice also inquires what licensing and service rules should apply to stratospheric-based communications services and whether they should be limited to services facilitated by nominally fixed stratospheric platforms, one of the defining characteristics of HAPS as described in international and FCC regulations.

The Public Notice also seeks comment on any international implications related to HAPS or other stratospheric-based platform services that might be authorized in the 70/80/90 GHz Bands. The Bureau noted that, at the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (“WRC”) of the International Telecommunications Union, additional spectrum bands were identified for HAPS globally at 31.0-31.3 and 38.0-39.5 GHz and in Region 2, the Americas, at 21.4-22.0 and 24.25-27.5 GHz. The Commission has not taken action to date to implement domestically these new international allocations, which supplement much more narrow allocations for HAPS at earlier WRCs in the 2, 6, 27/31, and 47/48 GHz bands.

Continuing the Public Notice’s theme of new means of potential connectivity for internet broadband access, the Bureau’s Public Notice also requests additional information regarding the potential use of the 70/80/90 GHz Bands to provide broadband Internet access to customers on airplanes and aboard ships. One of the subjects in the 70/80/90 GHz rulemaking proceeding initiated last year was consideration of a proposal by Aeronet Global Communications, Inc. to use these Bands for Scheduled Dynamic Datalinks” (“SDDLs”) to aircraft and ships.