FCC to Review and Update Satellite Licensing Rules

FCC to Review and Update Satellite Licensing Rules

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed today to open a comprehensive review of satellite licensing and operating procedures.  The most recent wholesale review was in 1996.

The FCC oversees use of the radio frequency spectrum by the private sector, including assignment of specific frequencies to satellites and their associated ground stations and, in the case of geostationary communications satellites, orbital locations.  The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce serves that role for government users.

At a meeting today, the five FCC commissioners adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to review the entirety of its “Part 25” rules.  The FCC said it would “eliminate unnecessary technical and information filing requirements, update rules to better accommodate evolving technology, and simplify existing requirements.”   In the end, it said, satellite licensees would have “the flexibility to provide innovative services while ensuring an operating environment free from harmful interference.”

Comments on the NPRM are due 45 days after it is published in the Federal Register.   Reply comments are due 30 days thereafter.

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski said that since the FCC licensed the first communications satellite in 1962, the U.S. satellite industry “has become a crucial piece of our communications ecosystem, employing almost 240,000 Americans and earning more than $175 billion in global revenues in 2011.”

The Satellite Industry Association (SIA), which represents many of the major companies involved in the satellite business, praised the FCC’s action. SIA President Patricia Cooper said SIA would be an “active participant” in the review and that an updated regulatory environment is “vital to the robust innovation and investment that are hallmarks of the satellite sector.”

It is not clear whether the FCC’s decision is at all related to fallout from the LightSquared controversy.  The FCC was harshly criticized after granting provisional approval to LightSquared to operate a hybrid satellite-terrestrial wireless mobile broadband communications system.   Critics said it would create interference with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers and the FCC conditioned its approval on resolution of those concerns.   It required LightSquared to create a joint technical working group with industry to perform tests.   Following those tests, many sharply critical congressional hearings, other reviews by an interagency GPS executive committee, and a letter from NTIA saying LightSquared “will impact GPS services and … there is no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time,” the FCC withdrew the conditional permission in February 2012.  Just last week, yet another congressional hearing was held.  Ironically, this hearing, coming months after LightSquared had to declare bankruptcy, was sympathetic to the company, but remained critical of the FCC — this time for withdrawing the conditional approval instead of for granting it. 

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