Tech Policy Trends 2024: The year of mega-constellations

Tech Policy Trends 2024: The year of mega-constellations

The race to control Low Earth Orbit is accelerating, raising concerns about sustainability and space debris. As the private sector comes to the fore, how can regulators close the existing governance gap?

Competition will shift the power balance of the LEO ecosystem

Satellite landscape evolution

2024 marks the beginning of a new era in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) competition. Many projected satellite systems have set 2025 as the year they begin revenue-generating operations. Surviving 2024 will therefore be make-or-break for startups. At the forefront of this transformation stands SpaceX, boasting approximately 5,399 Starlink satellites already in orbit with another 8,086 planned. Combined with the arrival on the scene of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, slated to launch 1,500 of its planned 3,000 satellites by 2026, we are about to enter a new era of global connectivity. Several other companies will also enter the satellite broadband connectivity market, with different start-ups and more mature companies developing business models to fill connectivity gaps and address niche markets, which could drive down prices.

Earth Observation is another space market experiencing rapid growth, with products becoming used for a range of clients beyond security and military applications. Images with better resolution, higher revisit rates, and improved price points are multiplying use cases and enlarging their addressable markets, making geospatial data a hot topic for climate change risk mitigation. Something similar will happen in the IoT market. As regulatory frameworks are revamped and companies complete their constellations, a thriving and competitive segment with various connectivity products and a diversity of business models will emerge.

Increased activity across these sectors will force new entrants to focus on their market segmentation to minimise direct competition. Where satellite operators end up in direct competition, the downward pressure on prices will force consolidation. What currently
looks like a Wild West where anyone can stake a claim will have its first casualties before the end of 2024.

Tensions between multilateral and national space governance mandates will increase significantly

Shifting dynamics

Accompanying the acceleration in mega-constellation deployments is a surge in regulatory pressures. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) faces the challenge of reconciling diverse technical specifications and ensuring sustainable practices. Proposed sustainability studies within the ITU are poised to generate a wave of regulatory pressures, forcing a revaluation of current governance frameworks to accommodate the unique challenges posed.

As mega-constellations redefine the celestial landscape, the ITU took the significant step of adopting a resolution focused on space sustainability. Resolution 219[1] lays the groundwork for this shift, aiming to facilitate the enduring and responsible utilisation of radio-frequency spectrum and associated satellite orbit resources. With the World Radiocommunication Conference 2027 (WRC-27) cycle about to commence, a fundamental shift in governance is anticipated. This will emphasise the international cooperation needed to manage critical space resources effectively but is also likely to revive the discussion of multilateral mandates to govern orbital activities through one or several institutions.

Amid these tensions, the private sector has emerged as a proactive force in shaping the future of space sustainability by developing guidelines and policies. Initiatives like the World Economic Forum (WEF) Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines and the Astra Carta exemplify industry’s commitment to addressing space debris challenges. These efforts promote collaboration, shared responsibility, and diverse perspectives.

Governance gap

The tension between multilateral mandates on space governance is exacerbating strained international relations. As nations strive to assert their interests in the rapidly evolving space domain, finding common ground becomes increasingly challenging. Additionally, operators are increasingly turning to national governments to request protection as a new era of competition begins.

Despite strides in space governance, a significant gap remains. Existing reporting structures, such as the ITU’s satellite filing system, fall short when confronted with the scale of mega-constellations. Current systems operate on a per-satellite basis, making it challenging to comprehensively address constellations. International space law also grapples with contemporary sustainable challenges, with notifications to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) lacking enforceable compliance requirements.

National governments and space agencies will play a pivotal role in regulating the space economy. Collaborative efforts, such as debris tracking and collision avoidance programmes involving organisations like the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the United States Space Surveillance Network, underscore the necessity for effective communication and cooperation.

GSO operators will pursue acquisitions, multi-orbit offerings, and regulatory solutions

M&A and multi-orbit interest

Whenever a space industry executive is asked about the main trend in the sector, consolidation is usually the answer. Recent mergers include Viasat and Inmarsat, Dish and Echostar, and Eutelsat and OneWeb. Such deals are becoming increasingly common as companies aim to drive down their costs through economies of scale, supply chain consolidation, and vertical/horizontal integration to compete with the likes of SpaceX, Project Kuiper, and emerging players.

GSO Operators are long-standing businesses, reinforced with solid commercial portfolios across their global target markets. In 2024, operators will become even more collaborative, strategic, and innovation-savvy.

Companies such as Intelsat, SES, and Viasat are taking steps towards multi-orbit satcom offerings and strategies, while others, such as Globalstar, plan to renew their LEO constellation. Executives from these companies have described themselves as orbit-agnostic and are making significant investments in this direction.

Debates on coexistence

WRC-23 became a battleground for international debates on whether current EPFD limits are appropriate, focusing on proposals to study RR Article 22. On the one hand, GEO operators insist that existing limits are adequate to guarantee the protection of their systems, while mega-constellation LEO operators would like these limits revisited to improve quality of service.

These contentious proposals highlight the intricate challenges associated with managing mega-constellations and emphasise the need for global governance structures (beyond Radio Regulations) to adapt to the evolving space landscape. This may require global commercial and political consensus, as well as guidance on what we want the future of space communications to look like.

While GSO operators will maintain a defensive posture against attempts by LEO operators to shift the regulatory landscape in their favour, at least one GSO operator will either have drastically changed their business strategy or established a close partnership with an existing LEO operator by the end of 2024.

[1] conf/S-CONF-ACTF-2022-PDF-E.pdf

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