The value of smallsats will be fully realized when the disorganized flock is transformed into a carefully orchestrated constellation. Credit: NASA illustration

WASHINGTON — New Federal Communications Commission regulations will go into effect next week intended to make it easier for small satellites to get licenses for commercial operations.

The FCC published in the Federal Register July 20 the final version of a new rule for what it calls “streamlined” licensing procedures for small satellites, which formally takes effect Aug. 19. Commissioners approved the new regulations last August, but they then had to go through a congressional notification process and review of information collection requirements by the Office of Management and Budget.

The new regulations are intended to provide a faster and less expensive approach to licensing smallsats for commercial applications than the traditional licensing approach under what’s known as Part 25 of FCC regulations. “The process is designed to identify those types of applications that are Part 25 applications but which can be processed in a more streamlined fashion,” said Merissa Velez, an attorney in the FCC’s International Bureau, at an Aug. 4 FCC webinar about the new rules during the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference.

Smallsat systems that qualify for the streamlined licensing process include those with no more than 10 satellites of masses no greater than 180 kilograms each, although companies can seek multiple authorizations if they have more than 10 satellites. The satellites must operate for no more than six years, including the time required to deorbit, and are limited to altitudes of no higher than 600 kilometers unless they have onboard propulsion. Each satellite must be at least 10 centimeters in its smallest dimension and have a unique telemetry marker to aid in tracking, among other requirements regarding debris.

Those that do qualify will be eligible for significantly reduced fees. Companies using the traditional Part 25 licensing approach pay an application fee of $471,575 for their constellation, whereas the streamlined licensing process has an application fee of just $30,000. Velez said the streamlined process “may result in shorter processing times” of applications as well.

That fee is still much higher than the $70 charged for satellites seeking an experimental license, but that license is intended only for research and technology demonstration missions. “If you’re planning to provide commercial service, you should be looking into obtaining a Part 25 license,” said Velez.

With the new streamlined Part 25 licensing, both the FCC and attorneys who deal with satellite licensing expect more satellites to seek the new licenses rather than experimental licenses, known as Part 5. “The drive was to encourage smallsat operators to apply under Part 25 rather than Part 5,” said Henry Gola, a partner at Wiley Rein, during a Satellite Industry Association webinar Aug 5.

Gola said he expects companies to take advantage of the rules, with a “flurry” of applications submitted to the FCC once the rules take effect. “The FCC certainly hopes the rules are worth the wait,” he said.

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...