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Startup and established IoT satellite operators exchange blows in regulatory battle

TAMPA, Fla. — U.S.-based startup Swarm Technologies and 28-year old Orbcomm, both pursuing the fast-growing market for connecting Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to satellites, are locked in a regulatory tussle over plans to expand overseas.

Orbcomm is challenging a letter the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sent March 10, which aimed to clarify how it and Swarm would share spectrum in Very High Frequency (VHF) bands worldwide.

In filings submitted to the FCC, Orbcomm said the letter should be rescinded and reviewed because it was procedurally and substantively defective.

Swarm hit back at what it described as a “stunningly frivolous request” in its own FCC filing, saying Orbcomm’s moves aim to confuse international regulators and delay its expansion. 

The FCC granted Swarm a license in January 2019 to launch 150 satellites in a VHF band that previously only Orbcomm was using.

Notably, that license came nearly a year after Swarm launched satellites in March 2018 without FCC approval. 

The Silicon Valley startup was fined $900,000 over five years as a result, although this did not prevent it from raising a $25 million Series A funding round shortly after.

Swarm’s hockey-puck-size Spacebee satellites are much smaller than those currently operated by Orbcomm, initially causing concerns that they would be hard to track in space.

Ben Longmier, Swarm CTO and co-founder, told SpaceNews in an interview that its low-cost, low-power approach will disrupt a market where he sees rising demand for connecting devices and machines to space-based networks.

Swarm announced commercial services Feb 9. when its constellation reached 81 satellites in space. 

Despite the venture’s regulatory hang-ups, Longmier said it now has customers on every continent. 

“Probably at least 80% of our overall market value comes from countries that we already have access to,” he said.

However, he said the regulatory back and forth with Orbcomm in the U.S. complicates expansion plans, particularly in Brazil and Europe.  

This includes getting clearance from the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), a coordinating body that would allow Swarm devices to circulate freely across 48 countries in Europe.

In a regulatory filing, Orbcomm said the FCC’s existing Non-Voice, Non-Geostationary Mobile Satellite Service (NVNG MSS) rules do not extend satellite frequency assignments beyond the U.S.

“I think a lot of what we’re seeing here is Orbcomm trying to do the normal satellite telecommunications play, and that play is: try to slow down the new people … to any extent possible,” Longmier said.

“I mean it’s no secret, if you’re a startup you have a limited number of dollars in the bank, and you need to activate your business plan and get customers ramped up before all of those dollars run out.”

Orbcomm declined to comment.

The deadline for Swarm to respond to Orbcomm’s FCC petition for a review was April 26, but it is unclear when the regulator will weigh in. 

Many issues are likely higher on the FCC’s to-do list, including deciding whether to allow SpaceX to add more Starlink broadband satellites to its constellation at around 550 kilometers.

“Swarm is clearly in the right; the FCC agrees — this will be resolved, it’s just an annoyance at this point in time,” Longmier added.

Orbcomm is currently in the process of being sold to private equity firm GI Partners in a $1.1 billion deal, including net debt.

The transaction gives Orbcomm until May 7 to seek a better offer. 

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