FCC to introduce new simplified licensing regulations for smallsats

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will release the draft text of new regulations this week meant to streamline licensing procedures for small satellites. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, speaking at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event here, said the regulations will make licensing small satellites cheaper and faster in order to better match cost and pace at which smallsat operators often function. 

“If operators want to launch satellites with certain characteristics, such as short orbital lifetimes, they would no longer be forced to comply with the longer and more expensive approval processes required for larger-scale missions,” Pai said July 9. “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.”

Pai said the streamlined regulations, as proposed, will apply to satellites 180 kilograms or less. The maximum design life for applicable satellites is six years or less, and they will also need to have the ability to “quickly” deorbit if they lose contact with ground control, he said. 

A draft copy of the regulations will be released Thursday, Pai said. He encouraged the satellite industry to give the FCC feedback on the draft. 

Pai said the FCC will vote on the draft regulations Aug. 1 in an effort to make U.S. regulations keep up with the rate of development in the space industry. The draft represents an “entirely new regulatory process designed for smallsats,” he said. 

Industry representatives praised the chairman’s push for simpler regulations for the smallsat sector. 

Steve Nixon, president of the SmallSat Alliance, said the industry would benefit from correcting what he described as “discrepancies” in the FCC’s satellite licensing costs.  

“Right now, if you want to apply for an FCC application for a geosynchronous bird — which might be a half a billion dollar asset — that application fee is $130,000,” Nixon said. “If you want to do something in [low Earth orbit] with a small satellite, right now the application fee for that is about $450,000 — and that satellite might only cost that much, so there is a little bit of a discrepancy there. 

In a statement, Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association, also remarked positively on the draft regulation.

“We look forward to seeing the text of the new order and to working with the Chairman and his team at the Commission in helping ensure continued American innovation and leadership in the commercial satellite and space industries,” he said. 

Pai said that the quickening speed at which small satellites can be built and launched is increasing the importance of having responsive regulations. 

“That’s why we are committed to streamlining our regulatory processes and ensuring flexible rules that can adapt to new technologies, such as these massive, next-generation constellations,” he said. 

He noted that the draft regulations won’t affect large broadband constellations like those of SpaceX and OneWeb (at 227 kilograms each, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are too big to qualify for the new regulations, though Pai didn’t give specifics on why large broadband constellations in general were excluded). 

Pai said the FCC wants to move quickly on broadband constellations too, and is in the process of evaluating constellation proposals from Boeing and Amazon.