Look Up In The Sky! It’s Not A Bird. It’s Not A Plane. It’s A Haps!

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As wireless airwaves fill-up to meet a surge in demand, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is actively considering new technologies and changes to its rules to promote the most productive use of spectrum resources.

High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) are one such innovation currently under review by the FCC for expanded use in underutilized bands.  The FCC’s rules define a HAPS as a “station located on an object at an altitude of 20 to 50 km and at a specified, nominal, fixed point relative to the Earth.”[1]  While the concept of deploying and operating stations in the stratosphere has existed for at least the last few decades, HAPS have only recently become more viable due to advances in solar panel efficiency, battery energy density, autonomous avionics, and array antennas.[2]  For example, following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, experimental internet service provider, Loon Inc., deployed dozens of internet-beaming balloons into the stratosphere and successfully delivered basic internet connectivity to over one hundred thousand people in Puerto Rico.[3]  These improvements, coupled with the growing drive for ubiquitous connectivity, have resulted in HAPS being actively considered as a feasible technology for wireless broadband deployment in underserved areas.

Indeed, the FCC is currently reviewing the practicality of HAPS as a part of its rulemaking proceeding to modernize and expand access to the 70/80/90 GHz bands.[4]  In a recent public notice,[5] the FCC sought comment on the “feasibility” of authorizing HAPS to operate in the 70/80/90 GHz bands and provide broadband Internet access services to consumers in communities that “lack robust, consistent connectivity.”[6]  Specifically, the FCC requested more information on the commercial and non-commercial use cases for HAPS, and the potential for HAPS-based services to cause harmful interference to incumbent or potential future services in the relevant spectrum bands.[7]

Five stakeholders filed comments in the 70/80/90 GHz proceeding responding to these questions.  Reply comments are due by January 3, 2022.  Given the diverse representation of industry stakeholders in the proceeding, we anticipate a robust discussion on these issues to develop over the coming months.  Industry stakeholders should closely follow these developments as the proliferation of HAPS and other stratospheric-based technologies have the potential to affect how we understand the provision of broadband services and the future of wireless communication networks.

FOOTNOTES

[1] 47 C.F.R. § 2.1(c).  See also RR 1.66A.

[2] See HAPS—High-Altitude Platform Systems, International Telecommunication Union (December 2019), https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/backgrounders/Pages/High-altitude-platform-systems.aspx

[3] D. Lumb, Project Loon Delivers Internet to 100,000 People in Puerto Rico, Engadget (November 09, 2017), https://www.engadget.com/2017-11-09-project-loon-delivers-internet-100-000-people-puerto-rico.html.

[4] Modernizing and Expanding Access to the 70/80/90 GHz Bands, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, WT Docket No. 20-133, 35 FCC Rcd 6039 (2020).

[5] Modernizing and Expanding Access to the 70/80/90 GHz Bands, Public Notice, WT Docket No. 20-133, DA 21-1263 (rel. Oct. 8, 2021).

[6] Id. at 2-3.

[7] Id.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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