The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has published a fascinating market study which maps out a trajectory of significant growth for the Australian space sector underpinned by recent increases in regulatory activity relating to approval and licensing of new satellite networks in Australia and raises corresponding regulatory issues and spectrum implications that will be of interest to current sector participants and prospective market entrants alike. 

Estimates cited in ACMA's report place the value of the global space sector in the range of USD 271 billion to USD 350 billion (of which satellite services contribute approximately USD 123 billion). While IBIS World estimates that the Australian space sector generated a relatively modest AUD 5.7 billion in 2020 from 829 businesses supporting 15,234 jobs, the Australian Space Agency (ASA) aims to grow the Australian space sector to a value of AUD 12 billion per annum by 2030, supporting a further 20,000 space industry jobs. 

The ASA has identified 6 focus areas in its Communications Technologies and Services Roadmap as areas of greatest opportunity for Australia, which notably includes:

  • low Earth orbit satellite (LEOsat) services, specifically in relation to IoT applications;
  • optical ground stations; and
  • hybrid radiofrequency optical terminals.

These opportunities each raise their own regulatory issues and spectrum implications. 

In relation to LEOsats and related satellite services, under the Radiocommunications Act 1992, a foreign satellite operator (such as an operator of a network of LEOsats) must first be included in the Radiocommunications (Foreign Space Objects) Determination 2014 (Foreign Space Objects Determination) before its satellite network can be licensed to operate in specific shared satellite radiofrequency bands listed in the Radiocommunications (Communication with Space Object) Class Licence 2015. This is a prerequisite before a space apparatus licence can be issued. Additionally, before operating a satellite network in Australia, the technical details of the network must be filed (via ACMA) with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as part of the ITU's international process for management of frequencies for satellite communications. ACMA also encourages ground communications facilities to be deployed in specific Earth station protection zones, which are primarily in regional and remote areas to facilitate coexistence of satellite technology with other services and spectrum uses.

In relation to optical communications, the ACMA notes that the current spectrum management framework is not designed explicitly to support optical/infrared-based satellite communications systems. In particular, infrared lasers operating within the 300 GHz to 430 THz range such as those used for earth to satellite communications are within scope of the Radiocommunications Act, and any earth station operating on frequencies below 420 THz requires an authorisation under the ACMA’s radiocommunications licensing scheme, however there are no class licensing arrangements specifically to support infrared satellite communications. ACMA is currently seeking advice from the space sector to determine the most appropriate regime to support such systems.

In line with the ASA's Roadmap, ACMA reports:

  • increases in the number and complexity of licence applications;
  • increases in satellite filing activity arising from requests for new Australian satellite filings and satellite filing coordination activity; and
  • requests to update the Australian Space Objects and Foreign Space Objects Determinations,

and encourages prospective or current market participants to contact early to discuss their business plans and spectrum requirements.