The FCC is creating a Space Bureau. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the move to a Satellite Industry Association meeting on Thursday.
She said the growth of satellite broadband internet plays a big part in why the agency is making the move. “Ninety-eight percent of all satellite launches in 2021 were deployed into low-earth orbit to provide internet connectivity back here on Earth. They can help advance the FCC’s goals to connect everyone, everywhere,” Rosenworcel said. “More than that, the success of these low-earth orbit communications satellites could be seen as an early litmus test for the broader commercialization of space.”
“The regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape space and satellite policy were largely built for another era,” Rosenworcel explained, when going to space was “astronomically” expensive. “No one imagined commercial space tourism taking hold and no one believed crowd-funded satellites and mega constellations in low-Earth orbit were possible,” she said.
Space-related work at the agency has grown enormously. Currently, the agency has 64,000 applications for new satellites before it. Last year, the Commission saw an eightfold increase in the number of applications for fixed satellite service gateway earth stations. “On top of that, we are seeing new applications for novel space activities like lunar landers, space tugs that can deploy other satellites, and space antenna farms that can relay communications,” Rosenworcel explained.
The new Space Bureau, Rosenworcel said, “will 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.” She clarified the FCC is not taking on new space responsibilities. The change is about “performing our existing statutory responsibilities better and freeing up resources to focus on our mission,” she elucidated.
The International Bureau has always handled space-related communications licensing duties in addition to international work. That bureau will be converted into a standalone Office of International Affairs. The reorganization will help ensure that the new Space Bureau and the Office of International Affairs “stay relevant, efficient, and effective over time,” according to the Chairwoman. The new Space Bureau will coordinate its efforts with other federal agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NTIA, the FAA, and other agencies that have a hand in regulating U.S. space efforts.
At least one industry executive praised the move. “It sends the message that the commission recognizes the pace of innovation in the satellite industry and seeks to match that,” Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, told SpaceNews. “It also gives encouragement to new space actors that there will be staff accessible to answer the many questions they must have as they try to enter this exciting industry.”
After her speech, Umair Javed, FCC chief counsel for Rosenworcel, said the proposal still needs to be discussed with congressional appropriations and authorizing committees and with the other commissioners, among others. “There’s still a lot more work to be done, but I think this is a priority for the chairwoman. Our steps forward will reflect that in how fast we try to move.”
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief