FCC moves to streamline satellite application rules

Apple’s Emergency SOS feature on the iPhone 14 played a critical role in the dramatic rescue of five people trapped in a white van during fires in Maui last month – and that’s exactly the type of space-based innovation the FCC is looking to foster.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel recounted those August 8 events in her prepared comments before the commission voted to adopt new rules designed to expedite the processing of satellite applications.


"It is important to remember that if we do this right, we are unlocking advances that have the power to make us safer in crisis and stronger in day-to-day life," she said.   

The amount of interest in pursuing satellites and space-based technologies is jaw-dropping. Right now, the agency has applications for more than 56,000 satellites pending before it, which is twice the number of applications the FCC had just four years ago, she said.

Earlier this year, the FCC launched the Space Bureau to support U.S. leadership in the space economy and improve coordination with other agencies. The agency is exploring how to support greater direct satellite-to-smartphone communication and bring its spectrum policies into a single network future. 

The agency also is taking public comment on proposals to further improve its processing of space and earth station applications.

“Our goal is to make it easier for new companies to get the authorizations they need to enter the market,” she said.

Industry reaction

The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) applauded the FCC for adopting the new rules. Separately, the FCC also adopted new rules to ensure commercial space launches have the spectrum resources they require for reliable communications.

“SIA applauds the FCC and its leadership for continuing to recognize the unprecedented growth and innovation taking place in the commercial space industry and the critical role satellites are playing in providing vital and lifesaving services to Americans each and every day,” said SIA President Tom Stroup in a statement.

Interestingly, ahead of Thursday’s vote, SpaceX commended the FCC for moving to streamline its space station and earth station application rules and processes, but it urged the agency to do more. For example, it wanted to see the commission establish “meaningful overall shot clocks for space station and earth station applications,” according to a September 13 filing with the FCC.

Seven of nine applications in the 2020 Ka-band processing round remain pending, and all applications in the 2021 V-band processing round remain pending, according to SpaceX. Meanwhile, new applications for these spectrum bands have already been filed.

This “boxcar pile-up” is resulting in cascading harms throughout the industry, including for some smaller operators that are having a harder time raising funds, not because their business models are lacking but because of investor uncertainty about how long it will take for their license applications to be approved, SpaceX asserted.

More to come

The FCC today said it will seek further comment about establishing timeframes or shot clocks for action on the merits of applications.

Notably, Commissioner Nathan Simington thanked the chairwoman and commissioners for their willingness to include specific questions in the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about that very topic.

“A strong proposal for shot clocks and streamlined rules that provide certainty to industry are vital to ensuring that we do not mire a budding industry in regulatory sludge that encourages anticompetitive gamesmanship,” Simington said, adding that he looks forward to working with his colleagues to execute shot clocks and take any other steps to change the rules to reflect the “current realities of the satellite industry.”