Bipartisan legislation seeks to reform FCC satellite licensing rules

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TAMPA, Fla. — The top Democrat and Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced a bipartisan effort Feb. 11 to update satellite licensing rules for the rapidly changing space industry.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and the ranking member, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), released drafts of two bills they say will better equip the Federal Communications Commission for regulating a surge of non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites.

They said the draft bills — the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act and Secure Space Act — mark the first step toward an overhaul of the regulator’s satellite licensing rules and authorities. 

The far-reaching legislation touches on foreign ownership rules, space sustainability, license processing timelines and satellite spectrum sharing.

The Secure Space Act would bar the FCC from granting licenses to foreign entities that the U.S. government deems a threat to the country’s supply chain or national security. 

The streamlining bill seeks to accelerate the FCC’s satellite licensing procedures, while requiring the regulator to create new performance requirements for space safety and orbital debris.

This draft streamlining bill would give the FCC defined deadlines for processing satellite license applications for the first time, according to George John, a senior associate at law firm Hogan Lovells.

It would force the FCC to move on an initial license application in about a year from the date of submission, he said.

Modifying an existing authorization would need to be processed within 180 days under the proposed changes, John added, or under 90 days or less if the request qualifies for an expedited process.

The legislation comes as a rising number of NGSO applications, multiple processing rounds and staff shortages have resulted in licensing timelines that take “longer than a few years ago,” he said.

In a joint statement, Pallone and Rodgers said: “we must streamline our regulatory processes to usher in a new era of American innovation and investment in this growing sector, particularly as our economic competitors like China race to dominate this industry, and must ensure our laws and regulations fully protect the public.”

The draft legislation comes after the FCC issued a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) Dec. 15 to update licensing rules within its existing framework.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said she welcomed 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,” Rosenworcel said in a statement.