FCC proposes more spectrum access for commercial satellite launches

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed new rules to allocate spectrum for communications services used during commercial space launches. The new rules would open access to the 2025-2110 MHz and expand spectrum available in the 2200-2290 MHz band from four channels to the entire band.

If adopted by a vote of the full Commission, the new rules would also amend the allocation for the 399.9-400.05 MHz band to permit the deployment of Federal space stations and adopt licensing and technical rules for space launch operations.

Access to those bands will be granted on a secondary basis, meaning that space stations must avoid causing any harmful interference to primary services and will have to accept any interference from those services. The FCC proposal directed the Office of Engineering and Technology to issue a public notice opening a new docket for public comment on the expanded federal use of the non-federal satellite bands.

“As private companies have assumed a vital role in the launch and operation of space satellites, scientific exploration, and transportation of astronauts both for public and commercial purposes, they need access to reliable and predictable wireless communications services,” the FCC stated.

Last week the House of Representatives passed H.R. 682, the Launch Communications Act — a bill introduced by Congressman Darren Soto (D-FL) and Congressman Neal Dunn, M.D. (R-FL)  — requiring the FCC to facilitate access to specified broadband spectrum frequencies for commercial space launches and reentries.

Currently, all commercial missions launching from U.S. soil to space must use government-owned spectrum to communicate with rockets during the 10-minute launch process. Ahead of launch, private companies must apply to the FCC to receive special temporary authority (STA) to use this spectrum.

“In a tedious and inefficient process, the FCC coordinates each separate STA license with multiple federal agencies that could conceivably be using the spectrum at the same time. This process has become highly burdensome to both the government and commercial users applying for the use of this spectrum,” Rep. Soto said in a statement.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the new spectrum rules will ensure space launches have the necessary resources for “reliable communications no matter their mission.”

She added, “The next-generation Space Age is already here. We are seeing more commercial space activity at the agency than ever before, and our overall approach as the designated commercial spectrum regulator must reflect that reality."

One win, one loss for the FCC in Congress

The spectrum expansion proposal is the latest in the FCC’s Space Innovation initiative. As part of that agenda, the FCC established its Space Bureau to speed up regulatory review processes, increase the number of staff working on satellite applications, create new opportunities for competition in the satellite broadband market and “modernize spectrum policy.”

The FCC said it also has taken action to “advance space safety and responsibility, including by adopting new rules for deorbiting satellites to address orbital debris risks.” However, its attempts to do so have been shadowed by concerns from some in Congress who are wary of handing over too much control to the Commission.

At the same time the Launch Communications Act was passed, H.R. 1338, the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, failed to get enough votes from the House.

The primary goal of that bill was to streamline the licensing process for satellite systems at the FCC, an update that its supporters deemed long overdue to ensure American competitiveness in the satellite communications market. The proposed improvements included setting time limits on the FCC's review of satellite licenses and enabling faster reviews of minor license modifications.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously in favor of that bill earlier this year, but the House Science Committee's leadership opposed the bill due to certain provisions related to the regulation of space debris and space traffic management.

As Chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Congressman Brian Babin (R-TX-36) opposed the bill, stating that while there is “no doubt” that the FCC has sole authority of licensing spectrum, “these would be new topics for FCC.”

“I am concerned that an unintended consequence would be to instead lengthen the time it takes for FCC to issue licenses,” said Rep. Babin in his opposition. “I share the goal of shortening and streamlining the licensing process for satellites on orbit. However, I’m concerned that H.R. 1338 goes beyond the task of streamlining this process and instead grants FCC additional authorities for which it is not suited and would be duplicative of authorities at other agencies.”

Representative Frank Lucas (D-OK), chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, said the bill was “well-intentioned,” but it could jeopardize the country’s leadership in space communications.

“The Science Committee supports the vast majority of the provisions in this bill. We absolutely should support the growing commercial space sector by seeking ways to streamline and quicken licensing processes for commercial space operations, including the use of spectrum by spacecraft,” added Rep. Lucas in his own opposition statement.

“However, this bill goes beyond that and also includes a significant and unprecedented grant of authority to the FCC, explicitly directing the agency to issue rules related to both ‘space safety and orbital debris’ that applicants must comply with to obtain a license for use of FCC-controlled spectrum.”

According to Rep. Lucas, the language in the bill would extend the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction over the licensing of spectrum use into the design and operation of any space object that carries an FCC-licensed system – an authority that would “fly in the face of existing efforts to coordinate space safety and orbital debris roles across the federal government.”

“To explain what a massive overreach this is, this would be equivalent to allowing the FCC to regulate the design and operations of tractor-trailers simply because the driver uses a CB system that uses FCC-controlled spectrum,” he added.

During the debate on the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, supporters of the bill maintained that additional language incorporated into it would safeguard the FCC from becoming a space safety regulator.

They highlighted that the bill now contained "rules of construction" explicitly stating that the FCC would not have the authority to furnish space situational awareness data or to establish requirements for or regulate space safety and orbital debris.

“It does not expand the FCC’s jurisdiction over the space industry. Instead, it sets new rules of the road with respect to the licensing of electromagnetic spectrum,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).