Vital Regulatory Reforms for Satellite Operations | Citizens Against Government Waste

Vital Regulatory Reforms for Satellite Operations

The WasteWatcher

The two most senior members of the House committee charged with overseeing telecommunications policy released on February 11, 2022, discussion drafts designed to overhaul the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) satellite licensing process.  

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone’s (D-N.J.) Secure Space Act would prevent the FCC from approving licenses to companies whose “covered communications equipment and services” are labeled a national security risk.  Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ (R-Wash.) Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act would expedite the FCC’s system of licensing satellite operators, instituting a deadline for the FCC to process applications for the first time.  It would also accelerate the procedures for altering existing licenses and implement a more thorough FCC review of potential risks of collisions causing orbital debris.

In a joint statement, Reps. Pallone and McMorris Rogers stated, “we must streamline our regulatory processes to usher in a new era of American innovation and investment in this growing sector.”

Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ legislation is especially crucial given the efforts by aerospace companies to provide internet access to underserved regions around the globe via constellations of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).  Most existing satellite internet providers rely on fewer satellites located in geostationary orbit, far from Earth.  However, the great distances between satellites and users mean high latency.  New business models involve numerous LEO satellites closer to Earth, thus improving transmission speeds.  With approximately four billion people worldwide lacking internet service, many in remote or sparsely populated areas, the potential market is vast. 

The proliferation of satellites in orbit has been made possible by remarkable innovations in the private sector such as reusability of launch systems that have dramatically reduced launch costs.  New innovative firms developing such technology have formed the backbone of American aerospace, as detailed in a January 2022 report by Citizens Against Government Waste.  Within a decade, costs have been slashed from hundreds of millions per launch to tens of millions.  What’s more, the coming decade will likely see further reductions in launch costs and an unprecedented potential for the commercialization of space. 

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel appears to recognize the need for change, stating in response to the bipartisan legislation, “while the FCC staff has done tremendous work in reviewing applications and simultaneously updating our rules from orbital debris to commercial space launch communications, the truth is that the laws were written to address a different satellite ecosystem.”  Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr also noted the benefits of improving FCC rules relating to satellite applications and deployment stating, “The final frontier is home to an emerging constellation of satellites that are offering high-speed Internet services.  That is great news for American consumers because it provides them with even more choice and competition for their broadband dollars.”  He continued that the “draft bills would strengthen America’s space-based leadership by further streamlining the licensing process and advancing the security of satellite systems.”

Ranking Member McMorris Rodgers is correct to anticipate the need for a nimbler regulatory framework.  The satellite industry will likely continue to grow exponentially in the future; the FCC must change with the times.

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