Op-ed | Streamlined FCC licensing a big deal for smallsats
Technology advances. Nations sometimes lead the way, sometimes struggle to keep up, and sometimes fall behind. Government officials make choices that enable technology to flourish in their country, cause it to wither on the vine, or force it to flee overseas. While some government leaders create barriers that slow down innovation, other nations adopt leap-frog strategies to help their domestic industries capture world leadership. The leadership of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently made a decision that will ensure America stays on the leading edge of the next technological revolution.
“Despite the fact that satellite technology has diversified dramatically in recent years . . . our rules for processing satellite applications haven’t kept up,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated last year. “There is no reason why a satellite the size of a shoebox, with the life expectancy of a guinea pig, should be regulated the same way as a satellite the size of a school bus that will stay in orbit for centuries.”
In that spirit, the FCC’s board of presidential appointees unanimously approved new rules for small satellites which are about to go into effect. These rules make it simpler, easier, and less expensive for U.S. companies bringing innovation to the satellite business. My company, Lynk, is a perfect example of an American business for which these new rules were developed. In our case, the streamlined rules enable us to stay here in America.
Lynk is a smallsat telecommunication startup based in Virginia. We have developed technology that will allow everyone’s existing cellphone to stay connected, everywhere in the world, all the time. No change to your phone. With the help of NASA, we have been testing our “cell tower in space” from low Earth orbit, proving that satellites can connect to phones anywhere on Earth. Our third space cell tower is now at the International Space Station. The low fees for experimental systems, and the unmatched expertise at the FCC, allow us to test from the U.S. We’re preparing to build our satellites in America and launch our initial commercial constellation of approximately 30 satellites to provide a global service for the world’s 5.2 billion cellphone users.
As we were working through our business model, one cost kept jumping out at us — the $471,575 filing fee to apply for a commercial operating license from the FCC. While this makes sense for a satellite project that costs hundreds of millions, a nearly half-million-dollar government application fee, coupled with the $122,775 annual regulatory fee, is enormous for a small startup. We understood why the exists, but understanding that history doesn’t change our bottom line. Nations outside the United States have much lower fees and reduced regulatory burdens. We watched as fellow satellite entrepreneurs made the obvious decision, and relocated operations overseas. We were preparing to do the same.
We rejoiced when the FCC announced that it would allow companies like Lynk to “choose a streamlined licensing procedure and thereby take advantage of an easier application process, a lower application fee, and a shorter timeline for review than currently exists for applicants.” On Dec. 30, the FCC published information about the streamlined procedure in the Federal Register. The new filing fee is $30,000. That is a fee reduction on startup ventures of more than 90%.
Beyond the reduced administrative fees, the FCC’s new satellite rule fixes major problems for smaller satellite constellations staying in the United States. It recognizes that orbits below 600 kilometers in altitude are “self-cleaning” for orbital debris. It recognizes that shoebox-sized satellites do not pose the same risks and burdens as satellites the size of a bus. It recognizes that satellites designed for a three to five-year lifespan are inherently different than satellites designed for decades of use.
The value in streamlining these procedures, and charging a fee that reflects these reduced needs, is critical to U.S. leadership in satellite technology. The FCC commissioners, led by Chairman Pai, all worked on these rules together, in a nonpartisan manner. They approved these rules unanimously. They have their disagreements, but they all agree how important it is to enable a company like Lynk, a company dedicated to connecting the world. We plan to prove what the FCC wrote in their order: “This action will support and encourage the increasing innovation in the small satellite sector and will help preserve U.S. leadership in space-based services and operations.”
In 1920s and 1930s, with the help of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the U.S. Post Office, Donald Douglas and Bill Boeing brought new ideas and new approaches to aviation, and America recaptured leadership in aviation. In the 2000s, with the help of NASA, Elon Musk brought new approaches to launch vehicles, and helped America regain world leadership in space launch. Chairman Pai and his fellow FCC commissioners are following through with that wisdom, vision, and mindset and helping to create an environment that enables this smallsat revolution to happen here in America.
Charles Miller is the co-founder and CEO of Lynk Global, Inc., a small satellite venture located in Falls Church, Virginia.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.