FCC’s Role in Commercial Space Expands with ISAM Proceeding

FCC’s Role in Commercial Space Expands with ISAM Proceeding

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously today to open a new proceeding called Space Innovation to assess what it could and should be doing in regulating new areas of commercial space activity. A Notice of Inquiry on the nascent In-Space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing industry is its first step, but there is more to come.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel speaking at an FCC Open Commission meeting, August 5, 2022. Screengrab.

The FCC’s interest in ISAM comes after the White House released an ISAM National Strategy in April.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel praised the White House action today, exclaiming “we’re all in.”

“A new space age is here,” she said, with “new commercial markets, new market entrants, and new technologies pioneering a new range of satellite services and space-based activities.”

A new space age needs new rules.

“We believe the new space age needs new rules because here on the ground the regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape space policy, they were largely built for another era. They were designed for a time when going to space was astronomically expensive and limited to the prowess of our political superpowers. No one imagined commercial space tourism taking hold. No one believed crowdfunded satellites or megaconstellations in low Earth orbit were truly possible. And no one could have conceived of the sheer popularity of space entrepreneurship. But it’s all happening. And if we are going to promote United States leadership in the emerging space economy, we need to make sure our rules are prepared for the proliferation of satellites in orbit and new activities in our higher altitudes. In short, we have work to do. And it starts with this inquiry.”

The Notice of Inquiry seeks information and comments on the status of ISAM today, how the FCC can support it, and tangible economic and societal benefits that may result. Comments will be due 45 days after the NOI is published in the Federal Register.

ISAM refers to a broad swath of space activities in earth orbit and beyond, from satellite servicing (repairing, refueling, life extension) to assembly of structures to manufacturing of components or other products.

View of Intelsat 901 satellite from Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1’s (MEV-1) “near hold” position during approach from approximately 20 meters (65 feet) with Earth in the background. The MEV successfully docked with the Intelsat 901 satellite on February 25, 2020, to restore its operational capability. Credit: Northrop Grumman

The FCC assigns radio frequencies to non-government users of the electromagnetic spectrum (the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration does it for government users). An independent agency, it is neither part of the Executive Branch nor the Legislative Branch, although it reports to Congress. Five commissioners, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, run the Commission. Typically three are from the President’s party, one of whom is chair, and two from the other party. Currently there are only four, two Democrats (Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks) and two Republicans (Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington). President Biden’s nomination of Gigi Sohn for the fifth slot is controversial and has not moved out of committee after eight months.

That means votes could get deadlocked 2-2 on political grounds, but that was not the case today. All four commissioners enthusiastically approved the action.

As Commissioner Starks pointed out, the FCC is the only government regulatory agency involved in virtually every U.S. commercial space activity, since they all need spectrum. “And with that power comes the responsiblity to understand the missions we authorize and create an enabling regulatory environment that opens new doors while still protecting against risks.”

Brian Weeden, Executive Director, CONFERS.

Brian Weeden, Executive Director of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) that fosters the satellite servicing industry, told SpacePolicyOnline.com this afternoon that he is pleased with the FCC’s action. “As CONFERS has noted in previous comments to the FCC, there is a need to look at this issue” because no spectrum is specifically assigned to satellite servicing. “All satellite servicing missions have to use spectrum that has been allocated for other purposes, which might create problems in the future as [they] grow in number and complexity.”

Although the FCC’s primary role is assigning spectrum, for years it also has established rules for orbital debris. Today’s NOI delves into that as well. Commissioner Simington said the NOI asks for comments on what the FCC should do about potential debris from byproducts of ISAM activities and whether FCC’s orbital debris mitigation rules need to be updated with “additional or modified disclosure requirements for ISAM providers.” Rosenworcel looked at it from a different point of view — how ISAM can lead to new ways to clean up debris.

She also made clear this is just the “inaugural” action in the Commission’s new Space Innovation docket. Noting the size of the FCC division responsible for satellite matters has increased by 38 percent, she said “I know there’s more to come.”

Some may find the FCC’s growing role in commercial space regulation surprising, but in a sense it is filling a vacuum. The FAA regulates commercial launch and reentries, but what happens in space is not regulated with the exception of commercial remote sensing satellites that need a license from NOAA.

The debate over what agency should have “mission authorization” responsibilities to authorize and supervise non-government activities in space as required by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty has gone on for years without resolution. The Obama Administration wanted to assign it to the Department of Transportation, of which FAA is part. The Trump Administration preferred the Department of Commerce. The Biden Administration hasn’t made any move on the mission authorization front, although it embraced Commerce’s role in Space Situational Awareness and providing statistics on the space economy. Congress came close to passing legislation assigning it to Commerce in 2018, but the bill failed at the last minute for unrelated reasons.

Weeden doesn’t think the FCC is overstepping its bounds with its interest in ISAM, but agrees there’s a gap in regulatory oversight. CONFERS wants Commerce to be given the mission authorization role “to give more certainty” to the satellite servicing industry, but “barring that, we’ll take whatever additional certainty we can get to help streamline the process and reassure customers, investors, and insurers.”

Scott Pace, Space Policy Institute, testifies to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, February 9. 2022.

Scott Pace, who was Executive Secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump Administration before returning to his position as Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, isn’t so sure.

Yes, the FCC is filling a vacuum, he said via email, but “this seems to stretch their authority” since it is not limited to assigning frequencies. “I would prefer specific legislation by Congress granting Commerce mission authorization authority for innovative space activities not otherwise covered by existing regulations. The FCC would be limited to the important task of regulating RF licenses by private sector space operators. No more, no less.”

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.