Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in an April 30 speech that the council is looking at how to "ensure the protection and stewardship of spectrum necessary for space commerce." Credit: Hudson Institute webcast

WASHINGTON — The National Space Council is studying better coordination of radiofrequency spectrum to protect satellite communications from terrestrial interference, the council’s executive secretary said April 30.

In a speech here at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, Scott Pace said preserving spectrum set aside for satellite services from efforts around the world to use that spectrum for terrestrial 5G services is important to protect American ventures planning satellite systems.

“The United States has a strong and entrepreneurial satellite communications industry, available to engage in global competition,” he said. “To ensure we retain the strategic advantages afforded by space services, the United States needs to continue open and promote competitive markets and protect spectrum allocation for space services to compete.”

The concern, he said, was that individual countries may seek to use spectrum intended for satellite services for terrestrial applications, like 5G broadband, creating interference with satellite systems. This can create problems beyond those countries.

“Since radio waves, as you know, don’t stop at borders, unfettered terrestrial wireless use in one country could certainly preclude the use of satellite services in neighboring countries,” he said. “That would harm the global economy, and a global approach is necessary to protect U.S. space commerce.”

Proposals to allow for terrestrial use of some satellite spectrum are likely to come up at the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in 2019. “There’s an urgent need to provide reasonable protections for satellite gateway earth stations in certain frequency bands, as well as protection for satellite end user terminals in core satellite bands,” he said.

“It’s for those these reasons that the National Space Council is examining how the Department of State, Commerce and the FCC can better coordinate to ensure the protection and stewardship of spectrum necessary for space commerce,” he said, for better competitiveness in both space and terrestrial applications.

The “protection and stewardship” of satellite spectrum allocations was a recommendation that emerged from the previous National Space Council meeting in February at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. That recommendation called on the Commerce Department to work with industry and the council to “develop and advocate, and to the extent possible, implement spectrum management policies that make U.S. space-related industries more competitive globally.”

That recommendation received less attention than others at the meeting, though, than other issues, such commercial remote sensing regulatory reform and consolidation of regulatory activities within the Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department. It is, though, a priority for the Commerce Department, an official said during a later panel discussion.

“There is a concern within the administration” about protecting satellite applications even while trying to also facilitate 5G services, said Earl Comstock, director of the office of policy and strategic planning at the Commerce Department. “We don’t want to discover that we’ve stunted the growth of that market by denying them spectrum that might be needed.”

Pace touched on a number of other issues in his speech, including “urgent regulatory reforms” in launch and remote sensing, the latter an area he helped developed in the early 1990s. “As one of the guys who was there in ’93, I can tell you the regulations we did then are grossly inadequate for what we’re trying to do today,” he said.

In the later panel, Comstock mentioned as one example of remote sensing regulatory issues the need for companies like SpaceX to obtain a license to provide live video for cameras mounted on the upper stages of their rockets. SpaceX was forced to cut off such video from a March 30 Falcon 9 launch because of restrictions in a NOAA license rushed through the approvals process.

He indicated that the need for the license stemmed from the Feb. 6 launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, whose upper stage broadcast live video from orbit for several hours. “People reviewed that and realized that there was a remote sensing issue connected with the second stage of that,” he said. The license for the March 30 launch, he said, was rushed through in four days but had a restriction on live video. “Now we’re actively working with them on a longer-term solution to this issue.”

Legislation that would reform commercial remote sensing passed the House April 24 as part of the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. The Senate is expected to address those issues in its own commercial space bill, yet to be introduced.

The recommendations from the February National Space Council meeting called on the Secretary of Commerce to propose “legislative changes” for commercial remote sensing regulatory reform. Comstock, though, said that effort is being done at the level of the National Space Council. “The position that gets advanced by the administration, which is still under development, will be a whole-of-government approach,” he said, and didn’t discuss if there’s coordination with the House and Senate to harmonize their bills with the council.

Another issue in Pace’s speech is a new space traffic management policy, which Vice President Mike Pence announced in an April 16 speech at the 34th Space Symposium. That policy, Pence said, would give the Commerce Department the responsibility for providing collision warnings to civil and commercial satellite operators, a role currently carried out by the Defense Department.

That policy is completed, Pace said, and awaiting formal approval by the president. “As the saying goes, it’s on that large piece of furniture known as the president’s desk,” he said. “I’m hoping that we’ll have an announcement fairly soon.”

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...