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Space Bureau to help FCC cope with skyrocketing satellite sector

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel wants to reorganise the US telco watchdog so it can do a better job of regulating the space industry.

Last week she proposed that the Federal Communications Commission’s International Bureau – which until now has overseen not just the satellite industry but also advocated on behalf of the US when it comes to global matters relating to spectrum and competition – be split into two distinct divisions: the Space Bureau and the Office of International Affairs.

In a speech delivered to the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) last Thursday, Rosenworcel said the remit of the Space Bureau would be to “support United States leadership in the emerging space economy, promote long-term technical capacity to address satellite policies, and improve our coordination with other agencies on these issues.” Meanwhile, the Office of International Affairs would continue to promote the FCC’s and US telcos’ interests abroad.

Rosenworcel said a next-generation space age is unfolding, noting that in 2021 the industry set a new record for the number of satellites launched into orbit, a record that is expected to be broken in 2022. This stellar growth is being fuelled primarily by demand for connectivity.

“Ninety-eight percent of all satellite launches in 2021 were deployed into low-earth orbit to provide Internet connectivity back here on Earth,” she said. “They can help advance the FCC’s goals to connect everyone, everywhere. More than that, the success of these low-earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites could be seen as an early litmus test for the broader commercialisation of space.”

According to Rosenworcel, the FCC is currently processing 64,000 applications for new satellites. Last year, saw an eight-fold increase in applications for satellite gateways as well. Furthermore, companies are applying for permission to carry out increasingly novel activities, including lunar landers and space antenna farms for comms relays.

“Our activities in space are going to change even more in the coming years than they have in the past sixty,” she said. However, she added that the government has its work cut out trying to keep pace with all these rapid changes, and so “I think the FCC needs some remodelling.”

The speech seems to have gone down well with the SIA.

“SIA strongly applauds both the leadership of Chairwoman Rosenworcel and her recognition of the growing role of satellites in advancing communications policy and helping bridge the broadband digital divide,” said SIA president Tom Stroup, in a statement. “SIA and its members look forward to continuing to work together with the Chairwoman and the future Space Bureau to help ensure the industry’s continued innovation and growth plus the long term access to a sustainable and safe orbital space environment. Such access will benefit both the commercial satellite industry and all Americans.”

Rosenworcel’s speech follows a proposal she made in September to curb the volume of space junk. Under current rules, LEO satellites that have reached the end of their life are permitted to remain in space for up to 25 years before burning up in the atmosphere – or ‘de-orbiting’ to use the sanitised term. She wants to reduce this to just five years. The FCC voted in favour of Rosenworcel’s proposal at the end of September.

Judging by her speech to the SIA, Rosenworcel probably discovered during the last month-and-a-half that under its current set-up, the FCC might struggle to effectively tackle this issue and others of a space-related nature, including those aforementioned 64,000 applications.

On that note, she also said it isn’t just the FCC’s job to help the space industry prosper.

“There are a lot of federal agencies that have an important part to play in the new space economy. They include NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Energy, just to name a few,” she said. “We will need a coordinated, collaborative, and whole-of-government effort if we are going to be successful.”

The FCC hasn’t said when it will vote on the proposal. It isn’t currently listed on the agenda for the regulator’s next open meeting, which is due to take place on 17 November.

 

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