House Subcommittee Approves Five Satellite Spectrum Bills

House Subcommittee Approves Five Satellite Spectrum Bills

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee unanimously approved five bills today dealing with allocating spectrum for satellite services. One broadly addresses assignment of spectrum for non-government satellites by the Federal Communications Commission, while the others target specific uses like precision agriculture and emergency services.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), Chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chairs a markup on March 8, 2023. Screengrab.

The Communications and Technology Subcommittee made quick work of approving the bills by recorded votes.  The bills are bipartisan and some are co-sponsored by the Chair and Ranking Member of the full committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). There was no opposition to any of them.

The subcommittee held hearings on satellite issues on February 2 and February 8. Subcommittee chairman Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) noted at the first hearing that it has been “over a decade” since the subcommittee held a hearing on the satellite communications marketplace and the FCC’s role in licensing commercial communications satellites.

The FCC is one of just a few government agencies that are not part of the Executive Branch. Overseen directly by Congress, not the President, the FCC assigns frequencies to non-government users of the electromagnetic spectrum. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce does that for government users.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel chairs a meeting of the FCC in August 2022. Screengrab.

Five commissioners nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate run the Commission. Usually three are from the President’s party and two from the other party, but the FCC has been stuck at four, two Democrats and two Republicans, since President Biden took office and his nominee for the fifth seat, Gigi Sohn, just withdrew her nomination after a contentious 16-month process. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees the FCC in the Senate, held three nomination hearings for her over that time, but Republicans remained resolutely opposed to her. Yesterday Democrat Joe Manchin (WV) joined them, making it all but impossible for her to be confirmed.

That leaves the FCC split equally between the parties, which can hamper their work on partisan issues like net neutrality, but so far does not seem to have affected their work on satellite issues. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is expanding the Commission’s role in space and recently reorganized the Commission to create a Space Bureau.

The overarching bill approved today, H.R. 1338, is co-sponsored by McMorris Rodgers and Pallone. As its title implies, the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, or SAT Streamlining Act, intends to streamline the FCC’s satellite licensing process.

“This legislation would reform the FCC’s satellite licensing process by requiring the FCC to establish a new framework for granting satellite licenses, modernize its rules to encourage operators to base their operations in the United States, and incentivize operators to be responsible stewards of space and spectrum in a global marketplace.

“These are important changes that will help U.S. companies compete globally and help us stay ahead of our adversaries, like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who seek to overtake our lead.” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Among its many provisions, H.R. 1338 requires the FCC to issue a rule with “specific, measurable, and technology neutral performance objectives for space safety and orbital debris.”

The FCC is getting a lot of attention because of the orbital debris requirements it is setting as part of its regulatory process. No agency formally has regulatory authority over space debris today. The FCC essentially is filling the vacuum because something needs to be done. Recently, for example, it adopted a 5-year rule where satellite operators must deorbit their satellites in low Earth orbit within 5 years of their end-of-mission.  This bill would formalize its role.

The other four bills are targeted more specifically.

  • H.R. 675, the Secure Space Act (Pallone/McMorris Rodgers), expands the Secure and Trusted Communications Act to include Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) satellite systems, meaning that licenses cannot be granted to systems owned or controlled by entities that pose national security risks (e.g. China).
  • H.R. 1339, Precision Agriculture Satellite Connectivity Act (Latta/Kelly), promotes the expanded use of satellites for precision agriculture.
  • H.R. 682, Launch Communications Act (Soto/Dunn), streamlines the process for getting spectrum for launch and reentry of commercial space vehicles.
  • H.R. 1353, Advanced, Local Emergency Response Telecommunications Parity Act (ALERT Parity) (Johnson/Schrier) adds satellites as providers of emergency connectivity services like 9-1-1 in areas otherwise without connectivity.

A committee memo and the video of the subcommittee’s markup have more details.  Amendments were adopted to H.R. 675 and H.R. 682, but were not controversial. The revised texts are not posted on the committee’s website yet.

The full committee is marking up a long list of bills tomorrow, but these are not among them.

Tom Stroup, President of the Satellite Industry Association, praised the committee’s “recognition of the growing importance of a thriving commercial satellite industry.”

“In so many ways, satellites are the backbone of modern society. Every day, hundreds of millions of Americans rely on them for connectivity and communications, emergency response, position, navigation and timing, and remote sensing both here and around the globe.  SIA and its members look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers in the House and Senate to help encourage further innovation and maintain America’s leadership role in the commercial space industry.”  Tom Stroup, SIA

User Comments 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.