More than just fixing the rules: regulating for innovation

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U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s is correct to call for a “fundamental rethinking about commercial remote sensing.” But remote sensing is only one area of space policy Congress needs to address. A variety of new space technologies are emerging in the U.S. space industry, and policymakers should look for ways to facilitate this innovation and make these technologies more accessible to civil, commercial, and military space customers. The Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report in March that addresses several areas of U.S. space regulatory policy in need of improvement and provides recommendations to develop a streamlined and minimally burdensome regulatory process to address the full spectrum of commercial space missions and capabilities beyond just commercial remote sensing.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the statutory requirement to turn around a licensing application for remote sensing in 120 days is almost an impossible feat. NOAA only has one licensing person on staff, and however efficient this individual may be, there is no way that one person alone can keep up with the drastically increasing applications the Congressman mentioned. Furthermore, with the most recent budget blueprint, or “skinny budget,” from President Trump, NOAA can expect an overall decrease in funding. Decreased funding will almost certainly not allow for an increase in licensing personnel. If the federal government is serious about speeding-up the licensing process for industry, they need to increase capacity and expertise at necessary agencies, like NOAA, as well as make licensing processes less burdensome. One way to alleviate this could be to shorten the licensing review process for satellites with the same, or near-identical, technology and capabilities as previous satellites that have already been cleared for license.

Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which allocate licenses for satellite communications and control the frequency allocation process in order to prevent radio-frequency interference, are running into similar issues as NOAA. Licensing staff are facing an increasing amount of licensing applications. In 2016, the FCC estimates it issued almost 158 space-related licenses, more than doubling the space-related licenses issued from the year before.

Congressman Babin also stated that “[s]takeholders report significant uncertainty with licensing actions, including modifications to operational license conditions without notice or due process.” Again, this is not an issue unique to NOAA. The FCC reserves the right to deny licenses to commercial companies in the interest of American national security. These denials often come without much explanation, as the reason for denial may relate to sensitive government activities. This is a serious roadblock for a “certain and permissive regulatory environment” that the Congressman is calling for as it severely limits predictability and transparency of licensing for commercial space activities. The same issue exists at NOAA where commercial remote sensing licenses can be delayed or denied for national security reasons without an explanation provided to the applicant.

The United States government needs policies that allow for information to be shared with companies when their licenses are denied or modified, and for companies to receive advice or direction on how to amend their mission or capabilities in order to obtain approval. NOAA and the FCC need the ability to grant temporary clearances where appropriate to individuals in commercial companies so they can understand why their license application was denied and engaged in a classified dialogue with government officials as they attempt to amend their application.

To promote the American space market, the United States government needs to develop a streamlined and minimally burdensome regulatory process that addresses the full spectrum of commercial space missions. Today’s regulatory approach for space addresses the individual aspects of operations. For example: for any satellite communications, a company needs a license from the FCC; for remote-sensing, from NOAA; for launch, from the FAA. This convoluted and complicated process lacks transparency and clear regulatory guidance for new innovative commercial space firms. Moreover, it does not yet fully accommodate the licensing needs of new space missions, such as on-orbit servicing. The U.S. government should adopt policies that will foster commercial innovation and streamline regulatory processes by creating a single point of entry for all approvals required by the U.S. government for commercial space missions. Establishing a community of interest to share best practices and encourage dialogue amongst the commercial space services community and the U.S. government is vital to continued development of smart regulations that allow proper government oversight without stifling industry.

Strong leadership in the United States Congress addressing the wide-range of space-related regulations is crucial for the development of a robust and innovative commercial space market.

Kaitlyn Johnson is a program manager and research associate in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an author on the referenced Ultra-Low-Cost Access to Space publication.