Space-based communications are all the rage these days, with companies ranging from Amazon to SpaceX to AT&T eyeing services that promise to connect Earthlings to the Internet via satellites.
But there’s a debate raging in some policy circles that’s even more “out there.” How should the Internet work on the moon?
Already some of the biggest companies in the US have something to say on the matter.
“Studying the establishment of a new article under the International Radio Regulations pertaining to telecommunication use on the moon would establish clear guidelines for all potential lunar spectrum users without the need to revisit compatibility studies that have been developed for the use of that spectrum on Earth,” T-Mobile told the FCC in a recent filing.
The FCC – the US agency in charge of the nation’s airwaves – is serious about the topic. Governments and companies around the world “are pursuing lunar missions, with remote unmanned exploration already underway, and with human visits to the moon set to occur as early as 2025,” the FCC wrote. “From there, permanent bases and regular space travel (both crewed and remote-controlled) will be established by the end of this decade or in the early 2030s. This is not speculation.”
Continued the agency: “The need urgently exists to accommodate the planned communications and data transmission requirements of long-term and continuous commercial and scientific operations on and around the moon.”
Through its Artemis program, NASA intends to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, followed shortly by establishing a sustained lunar presence. And it will need a communications network to do so.
“LunaNet is NASA’s answer to networked communications on the moon,” wrote one NASA researcher cited by the FCC. “The LunaNet architecture will be flexible and extensible, providing missions at the moon with the needed communications services. LunaNet is being developed through NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office, who oversee the operations, maintenance and advancement of NASA’s current networked operations.”
Already Lockheed Martin, a massive government contractor, has proposed its Parsec service for parts of that network. Parsec “uses a system of small satellites working in unison to allow for seamless connection between the Earth and the people and assets on the lunar surface,” according to the company. “These satellites act as an orbiting relay network that provides complete coverage and support to meet the needs of lunar missions.”
Lockheed Martin, it’s worth noting, is also at the center of the Pentagon’s JADC2 program, which could use 5G to coordinate communications among all branches of the US military.
To be clear, some 5G players are already engaged with the notion of lighting up the surface of the moon. For example, Nokia and Intuitive Machines have been clear about their interest in building a 4G private network on the surface of the moon by the end of this year.
Later this year, member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will convene in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC‑23). The event essentially brings together all of the telecom regulators across the globe, from the FCC in the US to Ofcom in the UK to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
During the event, regulators will work to harmonize spectrum allocations so that phones built for the US, for example, can also be used in the UK, Australia and other countries all over the globe. They’ll also discuss spectrum for 6G.
One of the many topics on the WRC‑23 agenda is global coordination of lunar communications.
“It is of utmost importance to the successful exploration and conduct of continuous operations on the moon for there to be a reliable, understandable, usable and available communications and data architecture in place to handle the communication and data transmissions services such exploration and operation services will require. The timely and effective development of this architecture is essential to the advancement of lunar exploration, scientific research and the broader commercial lunar economy,” according to the FCC.
For example, some FCC proposals include setting aside the 390-405MHz, 406-406.1MHz and 410-420MHz spectrum bands for lunar surface communications.
Companies including Verizon and T-Mobile offered some general comments to the FCC as part of the agency’s WRC‑23 preparations.
Verizon, for example, argued for “the development of an international spectrum management regulatory framework as a necessary precursor to future action on lunar spectrum sharing and compatibility studies. Absent a clear framework for international spectrum management, it is unclear how any lunar communications could be effectively implemented.”
Of course, we’re probably decades away from needing speedy, Netflix-ready 5G connections for iPhone-toting Stranger Things fans on the moon. But there are already clear signals on the need for a coordinated approach to lunar communications. For example, the US and South Korea recently signed an agreement to enhance cooperation on space activities, including lunar exploration. And Japanese company ispace recently attempted – albeit unsuccessfully – to make the first remote private moon landing.
Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano