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FCC proposes new bureau for space activities

The FCC said its decision ensures stable spectrum access for current and next-generation satellite services. Credit: FCC via Flickr

WASHINGTON — The chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission announced plans Nov. 3 to reorganize the agency and create a bureau devoted to its increasing work with space systems.

In a speech at a Satellite Industry Association event, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced her intent to reorganize the commission’s International Bureau into a new Space Bureau and a standalone Office of International Affairs. That reorganization, she said, would give satellite licensing and regulatory work greater prominence and access to more resources.

“The organizational structures of the agency have not kept pace as the applications and proceedings before us have multiplied,” she said, saying that the FCC has applications under consideration for systems totaling 64,000 satellites. “You can’t just keep doing things the old way and expect to lead in the new.”

Having a bureau devoted to space, she said, would go hand-in-hand with efforts to increase staffing and develop new regulations for space systems. “This organization will help ensure that the new Space Bureau and the Office of International Affairs stay relevant, efficient and effective over time.”

Rosenworcel’s announcement is only the start of the process to create the Space Bureau. In a panel discussion that followed her speech, Umair Javed, FCC chief counsel for Rosenworcel, said the proposal still needs to be discussed with congressional appropriations and authorizing committees and with the other commissioners, among others.

“There’s still a lot more work to be done, but I think this is a priority for the chairwoman,” he said. “Our steps forward will reflect that in how fast we try to move.”

Two industry executives at the event welcomed the Space Bureau proposal. “It sends the message that the commission recognizes the pace of innovation in the satellite industry and seeks to match that,” said Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs for Amazon’s Project Kuiper. “It also gives encouragement to new space actors that there will be staff accessible to answer the many questions they must have as they try to enter this exciting industry.”

Both Zoller and Jennifer Warren, vice president of civil and regulatory affairs at Lockheed Martin, said the new bureau will be helpful as the industry prepares for the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), which takes place in late 2023. Several issues about access to spectrum for space issues will be up for discussion at the meeting.

With a Space Bureau, Warren said, the FCC can bring new attention “to future agenda items for the WRC that we have for international regulatory frameworks that are enabling.”

The announcement comes as some in the industry watch with caution steps by the FCC to move beyond issues purely associated with spectrum, such as the commission’s adoption in September of a new order requiring low Earth orbit satellites it licenses to deorbit no more than five years after the end of their missions. It also sought industry input on a “notice of inquiry” regarding in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) issues.

Rosenworcel said she sought to create the Space Bureau to deal with the commission’s existing space activities, not any new ones. “The changes I am announcing today are not about taking on new responsibilities at the FCC. They are about performing our existing statutory responsibilities better and freeing up resources to help focus on our mission.”

Javed reiterated that point in a later panel discussion. “This isn’t about growing the scope of the FCC’s activities. This is about doing the job we’re supposed to do better,” he said, emphasizing the FCC was working closely with the National Space Council and others on topics like ISAM and mission authorization of new space activities. “We are very much coordinated across the government.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...