Understanding the FCC’s outsized impact on the space industry

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is not a space agency, but many of its actions have shaping impacts on what happens in space.

Two of the commission’s recent actions — approving a spectrum license modification for Ligado despite concerns from GPS users, and proposing but later deferring on new orbital debris regulations that worried Congress and industry — showed just how big a role it plays in space.

Last month, the FCC unveiled a new seal that emphasizes its role in space, emblazoned with a satellite, cellular towers, and satellite dishes. The refresh was timely, as the FCC’s decisions are having an increasingly sizable impact on commercial space companies in the U.S. and abroad.

SpaceNews convened a panel of experts to weigh in on the FCC’s recent actions as they pertain to the space industry. Here are some key takeaways from our April 29 webinar.

ON LIGADO

The FCC on April 20 approved a license modification request from Ligado Networks, authorizing the company to deploy a network of ground-based signal transmitters in L-band spectrum. The U.S. Department of Defense says Ligado’s network could interfere with precision GPS signals, which use adjacent spectrum.

Was the FCC the right agency to decide on Ligado?

Carlos Nalda: Fundamentally, this order is about spectrum sharing and the interference impact of the Ligado system. The FCC is uniquely qualified, and is indeed the expert agency to address these issues, even to the extent there may be some disagreement among U.S. government agencies. This was an issue before the FCC for nearly two decades, and moving forward as the licensing agency does seem clearly to be within its jurisdiction and mandate.

Jennifer Manner: From a satellite industry perspective, or from any licensee perspective, we’re glad there was a decision, whatever the decision is. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I think we’re happy to see companies getting certainty.

Was there sufficient coordination between the FCC and other agencies on Ligado?

Nalda: Clearly there was interagency coordination and consultation over time. The changes to certain agency positions may have occurred as the proposal continued to evolve. Some questions were raised at the eleventh hour. The FCC attempted to address some of those concerns with additional conditions that will require Ligado to continue to assist and address any potential interference going forward.

Manner: It is very hard to coordinate spectrum between agencies and the FCC. The memorandum of understanding [between the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration] provides the framework, but maybe this is an opportunity to go back and say ‘should there be something else being done?’ … From an industry perspective, we would like to see improved sharing and improved coordination between government users and the FCC, and that’s for a wide variety of bands, not just the L-band.

ON ORBITAL DEBRIS

The FCC on April 23 adopted requirements that U.S. satellite operators seeking licenses and foreign operators seeking U.S. market access provide new details about collision and deorbit risks of their spacecraft, but stopped short of mandating stricter debris mitigation criteria. Facing congressional and industry objections, the FCC said it will engage in further study to create better debris mitigation regulations that will be voted on at a later time.

What should the FCC’s role be in shaping U.S. policy on space debris?

Nalda: The draft order proposed to adopt a few requirements that seemed to be at odds with U.S. orbital debris policy. The FCC has moved those particular elements of the draft order into the further [notice of proposed rule making]. The basis upon which the FCC is adopting and implementing orbital debris policies is its general public interest mandate to authorize launch and operation of satellite systems consistent with the public interest, convenience and necessity. That does encompass U.S. orbital debris policy. The question becomes is the FCC empowered to independently develop the orbital debris policy that is otherwise not part of U.S. coordinated policy?

Manner: Orbital debris regulations, to the extent they are being applied to the commercial community should be done through the FCC. That’s my view — that’s the commercial licensing body; it makes sense. It’s the development of the standards and what the policies are that needs to be done by an expert agency.

ON CONCERNS ABOUT FCC REGULATIONS THAT WERE WITHDRAWN FROM THE APRIL 23 VOTE

Manner: One of the things I think was concerning to industry was subjectivity in the draft order. I think there were 44 cases where things were left to [FCC] staff. That creates tremendous uncertainty. Something we’ve seen in the FCC’s implementation in other areas of satellite regulation is that space is seen as something different, and I’m really not sure it’s all that much different from any of the other spectrum-based usage.

Moriba Jah: I think moving forward, whatever the FCC does it has to hit on transparency, predictability and accountability, and it needs to make it very clear how a greater community can actually weigh in on this. Whatever data and whatever tools and assumptions are used, that has to be vetted by independent organizations, entities and individuals so that you can aggregate what’s important and compare notes. Because the domain belongs to all of us, not just a select few.

ON SATELLITE COLLISION PROBABILITIES

Jah: Collision probability in and of itself is a completely nonsensical measure of coming up with collision risk. It’s one number that tries to encapsulate so many different things and assumptions.

You could take the same data, the same sensor measurements — absolutely identical — and give it to four different people and you’re going to come up with four different collision probabilities just because the physics properties they assume when they process the data are different, the assumptions on the shape and material properties of the object, and all these things. It’s very nuanced. Collision probability can be part of the answer, but it can’t be the thing that people hang their hat on because it’s a very subjectively computed sort of thing.

ON DISPOSAL BONDS

The FCC’s regulations were going to require operators pay bonds — $5 million to $100 million depending on the orbit and number of satellites — that would be forfeited for failing to properly dispose of spacecraft. The bond was pushed to a later vote, for which a date has not been set.

Manner: At least on the GEO side, which is where my company is mostly focused, there’s really been no issue that we could find where a geostationary operator didn’t dispose of a space object in accordance with the requirements. So it seemed like there wasn’t a real need for that, [or] at least as broad a need.

Nalda: Unlike large, established satellite operators who have extensive assets and credit histories, small startups and NewSpace companies are unable to get a bond or some kind of credit facility to support the bond … instead these small companies with no credit history have to take the amount of the bond in cash and deposit it in an account to support a letter of credit because it’s not possible for them to get a pay as you go bond. Tying up that amount of capital for a startup can really dampen space and satellite innovation.

ON OPERATORS INDEMNIFYING THE U.S. GOVERNMENT

Manner: I don’t know how that is implementable. We’re very happy to see that move to the notice. I don’t think we’re against indemnifying the United States for damages if caused by an operator, but you want to know what that is, what that looks like, what you’re committing to.


WEBINAR REPLAY

To watch a video replay of our panel discussion on the FCC’s role in space policy, go to: bit.ly/FCC-webinar-replay

This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.