What to Expect from the New FCC Smallsats Rules?

Posted on 24th July 2019


The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently revised its regulations in relation to small satellites (smallsats) which are smaller in size and of lower cost compared to ordinary satellites. While the smallsats industry is continuously growing, regulation of them is based largely on a framework more akin to those concerning traditional satellites. The FCC recently announced a proposed an alternative to the complex, time-consuming and expensive licensing burden falling on small satellite operators by introducing new rules governing the technology.

The new Streamlining Licensing Procedures for Small Satellites remain under consideration and are subject to change following the FCC’s open meeting in August 2019, which Access Partnership will monitor closely. The proposed rules have been added to the licensing procedures for NGSO and GSO satellite systems and can be applied to both commercial and non-commercial applications.

Coverage of New Rules

To be eligible for the new licensing procedure, the individual satellite (fuelled by a propellant) must weigh no more than 180 kg and must have physical dimension greater than 10 cm. This criteria does not apply to large satellite constellations as a single license can authorise up to 10 satellites. While the rules do not restrict the number of submissions per applicant, the FCC confirmed they will not accept applications from operators who overcrowd the spectrum, so as to avoid manipulation by applying for multiple licenses. To mitigate debris risks, the new standards will only apply to satellite systems with propulsion capabilities or systems deployed below 600 km altitude. Additionally, the total in-orbit lifetime of any satellite (including time required to de-orbit the satellite) must be up to six years.

Regulatory Simplifications

The proposed FCC application process is easier, requires a lower fee and has a shorter timeline for review. It will also apply to entities using foreign-licensed satellites and they will need to request market access through a declaratory ruling. The most significant amendment is the lower application fee of USD 30 000, compared to the current fee of USD 472 000. The FCC suggests a one year ‘grace period’ during which the smallsats business will not be required to post a surety bond. This differs from existing rules where, for the majority of NGSO systems, licensees are required to have a surety bond on file 30 days after they have received a license. There is, however, no proposed amendment to annual regulatory fees. According to the FCC, enough time will be provided to adopt the appropriate annual fee in a separate proceeding before any smallsats will be required to pay.

Assessment of the New Rules

Doubts have been expressed by the satellite industry regarding the practical value of the new rules, particularly over the limitation of a constellation of 10 or fewer satellites, the short-term validity of the license and the altitude restriction of deployment. Operators wishing to deploy at higher altitudes or with a longer timeframe will still need to follow the existing licensing procedure. The FCC has also rejected the prioritisation of systems with technological capabilities related to spectrum efficiency. The new streamlined process should, however, be welcomed by the smallsats industry as the first step towards recognising the divergence of new satellite systems and should anticipate further facilitation of entry to space in other jurisdictions.

Author: Maria Zervaki, Policy Analyst, Access Partnership

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