U.S. Satellite Group: Simplify Regulatory Procedure, Create New Regime for Smallsats

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PARIS — The U.S. Satellite Industry Association (SIA) on Feb. 2 said it had asked U.S. regulators to include nongeostationary-orbit satellite systems in a proposed streamlining of regulatory documentation accompanying requests for spectrum and orbital slots.

The organization also proposed that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acknowledge the different nature of cubesats and other very small spacecraft by creating a separate regulatory regime “to address the myriad regulatory issues that these satellites pose.”

Very small satellites are capable of performing tasks that only a few years ago were limited to much larger satellites. International regulators have expressed concerns that some of these small-satellite constellations are not registering their broadcast frequencies, creating potential signal interference issues and are not following guidelines on end-of-life disposal of their hardware to reduce space debris.

In its FCC submission, dated Jan. 29, the SIA broadly endorses a series of measures the FCC proposed in September to make it easier to register proposed new satellite systems — and especially to withhold disclosure of the systems until backers had registered with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based United Nations affiliate that allocates wireless radio spectrum and orbital positions.

Credit: ITU
The ITU operates on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning those whose proposals arrive earliest have a substantial advantage over competitors when the time comes to coordinate broadcasts and avoid interference. Credit: ITU

The FCC had agreed with operators that the current FCC procedures force satellite system sponsors to disclose their systems’ characteristics to the FCC, which only after an initial review then forwards notification to the ITU.

But in what one satellite operator called “claim-jumping,” this practice tips off competitors, who then can use less-stringent regulatory agencies in other nations to make their own filings before the FCC has finished its initial review.

The FCC had proposed that it forward to the ITU an initial notification without waiting for the FCC to complete its own review.

The ITU operates on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning those whose proposals arrive earliest have a substantial advantage over competitors when the time comes to coordinate broadcasts and avoid interference.

SIA’s proposal to add nongeostationary-orbit systems to the expedited ITU notification comes after a remarkable series of ITU certification requests for networks using low, medium and highly elliptical Earth orbits to provide broadband communications links worldwide.

These initial filings — ranging from dozens to hundreds to several thousand satellites each — arrived at the ITU between late November and mid-January. They are only identified by their regulatory home for the moment, so it is unclear which of them correspond to what corporate sponsor. But despite the fact that the United States is home to most of the Internet companies pursuing satellite systems, none of the ITU proposals came from the United States.

The SIA submission is insistent that the voluminous documentation providing that a satellite system has cleared its regulatory milestones, including its critical design review, should be scrapped in favor of a simple procedure.

For the SIA, the satellite’s owner and manufacturer should be required to send a photo of the satellite’s status at a production facility and sign a document attesting to the photo’s veracity — that is it.

“Requiring submission of extensive [critical design review] documentation offers few or no offsetting public benefits,” the SIA said. The more extensive the documentation, the longer it will take the FCC to review it, and this delay could discourage investors whose backing is needed to assure the satellite’s completion, the SIA said.

The SIA urged the FCC not to increase the bond payments it requires of each new network — $3 million for geostationary satellites, $5 million for nongeostationary constellations. The network sponsors are then reimbursed as they pass regulatory milestones.

The FCC is expected to issue its final ruling on the regulatory modifications later this year.