FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced today that the FCC will consider an order at its Aug. 1 meeting streamlining its regulation of small satellites.
“The bottom line is that the space industry is changing, and our regulations need to change with it,” Mr. Pai said in a speech at an event this morning organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Procurement and Space Industry Council. “Now, a satellite can be built in a matter of months, weeks, or even days, and launched by a private provider on demand. It disserves businesses and consumers alike for a byzantine licensing and regulatory approval system to be the bottleneck of this process. That’s why under my leadership, the FCC is committed to matching the tempo of the industry we regulate. We aim to craft forward-looking rules that safeguard the public interest and enable the private sector to deliver consumer value. That’s the only way to ensure that America remains the best place in the world to license and launch satellites.
“In that vein, I’m pleased to announce new steps that the FCC is taking toward meeting this challenge. This morning, I presented to my colleagues a draft order that would make it easier and cheaper to license small satellites, or smallsats. Smallsats are currently used for everything from communications to remote sensing to scientific research. There are a lot of startups working to make smallsat technology a real player in the digital communications revolution,” Mr. Pai added.
“To enable this to happen, the order I’ve shared would establish an entirely new regulatory process designed for smallsats,” he explained. “It would enable small satellite applicants to choose a streamlined alternative to existing licensing procedures which would feature an easier application process, a lower application fee, and a shorter timeline for review. It would offer potential radiofrequency interference protection for critical communication links. It would promote orbital debris mitigation and efficient use of spectrum. And it would tailor the regulatory burden to the nature of the deployment. For example, in order to qualify for the streamlined process, these smallsats would have to be no more than 180 kg, or about 400 lbs. They would also have to quickly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere if something goes wrong and ground operators lose contact; their maximum lifespan would be six years.”
Mr. Pai added, “In sum, if operators want to launch satellites with certain characteristics, such as short orbital lifetimes, they would no longer be forced to comply with the longer and more expensive approval processes required for larger-scale missions. I see no reason why a satellite the size of a shoebox, with the life expectancy of a guinea pig, should be regulated the same way as a spacecraft the size of a school bus that will stay in orbit for centuries.”
Mr. Pai observed “that this process would be different from the one used by the conventional NGSO [non-geostationary satellite orbit] constellations in our processing rounds and wouldn’t affect proposals for large broadband-delivery constellations like those being deployed by SpaceX and OneWeb.”
The draft order is expected to be released Thursday along with the tentative agenda for the Aug. 1 meeting.
Last year, the FCC unanimously adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking in IB docket 18-86 proposing to streamline the application process for smallsats (TR Daily, April 17, 2018). In response, incumbent operators offered support for the proposal but expressed concerns about interference with existing users and the possibility that smallsats will create more orbital debris (TR Daily, July 10, 2018).
Separately, the FCC has launched a comprehensive review of its orbital debris mitigation rules, the first such effort since it adopted the regulations in 2004 (TR Daily, Nov. 15, 2018).
Mr. Pai’s announcement at today’s Chamber event drew praise from some attendees.
Audrey Allison, vice president-global spectrum management for the Boeing Co., told Mr. Pai that she was pleased that the FCC planned to streamline its smallsat rules ahead of the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) later this year in Egypt.
In response to a question about the WRC-19, Mr. Pai said success will be the adoption of “policies that promote harmonized spectrum, that allow industries across the board to innovate, and are driven primarily by concerns of science and economics as opposed to politics and parochialism.” His last comment echoed his defense of the FCC’s 24 gigahertz band position, which has drawn criticism from some other agencies.
Steve Nixon, president of the SmallSat Alliance, also commended Mr. Pai for circulating the order for the Aug. 1 meeting.
He said the biggest concern for smallsat companies is the application fee at the FCC, which he said runs $450,000 for a low-earth orbit satellite compared with $130,000 for a large GSO satellite.
Orbital debris is another concern, Mr. Nixon said, adding that the FCC’s NPRM in that proceeding is “asking all the right questions.” The FCC’s orbital debris policy should promote the industry while not “overly constraining it,” he added.
The Satellite Industry Association released a statement praising Mr. Pai’s announcement.
“SIA commends FCC Chairman Pai and the FCC for their plans to streamline the licensing of small satellites and for their continued recognition of the role satellite broadband will play in bridging the digital divide in America,” said SIA President Tom Stroup. “Thanks to rapid growth and innovation, we truly are seeing a revolution in the satellite industry and streamlining the licensing regime governing the industry can only serve and encourage continued innovation. We look forward to seeing the text of the new order and to working with the Chairman and his team at the Commission in helping ensure continued American innovation and leadership in the commercial satellite and space industries.”
Speakers at today’s event cited the growth of the smallsat community, which is expected to continue. The sector was a $3 billion industry in 2017 that is expected to grow to $30 billion in 2026, Mr. Nixon said.
But it faces challenges, including the need to plan for encryption, interference mitigation, and the reliable deorbiting of systems, speakers said. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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