FCC outlines proposed smallsat licensing rules

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WASHINGTON — Small satellites that meet certain criteria from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will be eligible for simpler licensing at roughly one-fifteenth the cost of current licenses. 

Under newly proposed rules, smallsat operators will be able to choose a licensing path — for authorization as a domestic operator or for U.S. market access as a foreign operator — for $30,000 instead of the $472,000 fee required today for satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits. 

The proposal creates a third licensing option for satellite operators, which FCC regulations currently split into geostationary and non-geostationary without distinction for the different types of satellites those orbital regimes. In recent years, low-cost smallsats typically placed in low Earth orbit for missions just a few years long have surged in popularity, creating the need for new regulations. 

“I see no reason why a satellite the size of a shoe box, 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,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a July 9 speech. 

The FCC released the text of the proposed licensing rules July 11. On Aug. 1, FCC commissioners will vote on adopting the measure, which so far has received praise from satellite industry groups

To qualify for the streamlined licenses, the FCC proposal requires satellites either deploy into orbits below 600 kilometers or carry propulsion systems to deorbit satellites in six years. 

Eligible satellites have to weigh 180 kilograms or less (including fuel), and need to be 10 centimeters or larger in their smallest dimension. The licenses are also applicable to a maximum of 10 spacecraft at a time. 

Pai said the new rules won’t affect large broadband megaconstellations, citing SpaceX and OneWeb as examples. Those companies are at the beginning of building and launching thousands of satellites for global internet connectivity services. 

The rules instead target smallsat missions with just a few satellites, and that don’t require the same magnitude of regulatory scrutiny. 

The FCC said the streamlined licensing would also be available for “non-Earth orbit missions.” Such spacecraft won’t require a “qualifying certification” for deorbit by means of atmospheric re-entry, though the agency said it will still ask for a brief description of disposal plans. 

Non-Earth orbit missions would also have a higher mass limit of 500 kilograms, fuel included. 

Satellite industry largely onboard

Satellite operators and industry groups were largely positive about the proposed licensing route, but did have reservations about some FCC criteria. 

Launch provider and fledgling satellite operator SpaceX, and Internet of Things constellation operator Orbcomm told the FCC they fear applicants may “unfairly manipulate” the proposed rules, if adopted as is, by filing for multiple licenses. SpaceX and Orbcomm said allowing multiple licenses elevates the risk of satellite collisions and signal interference. 

The FCC disagreed, saying the 600-kilometer limitation and propulsion stipulations for higher orbits mitigates debris risk, and that the agency would stop approving applications for operators who overcrowd spectrum for new or incumbent operators. 

Boeing suggested the FCC cap each license at 30 satellites instead of 10 — a limit the FCC disagreed with, saying it would require a more intensive regulatory review, defeating the purpose of streamlining the process in the first place. 

The Commercial Satellite Spectrum Management Association argued that the proposal’s six-year maximum spacecraft life will limit launch opportunities, since some launches would leave satellites in orbits too high for them to deorbit naturally. Satellites over 600-kilometers require more than six years to “passively” or naturally deorbit, according to the FCC, making spacecraft without onboard propulsion or other means of deorbiting incapable of meeting the streamlined license’s rules if they are launched too high.

The FCC acknowledged that some rideshare opportunities may no longer be feasible under the streamlined rules, but said this is a “reasonable trade-off to ensure that satellites licensed on a streamlined basis will have a shorter in-orbit lifetime.”

“[N]o operator is required to use the streamlined process, so operators seeking to deploy at higher altitudes or operate satellites with longer lifetimes may apply under the existing Commission application procedures that fit their planned operations,” the FCC said.