FCC to Update Satellite Licensing to Facilitate Broadband


Satellites are becoming more useful for broadband distribution as reusable rockets and launch vehicles are being miniaturized, lowering the costs for launching space equipment. The changes mean new competition in the broadband marketplace and new opportunities for rural residents who lack access to high-speed internet access. That’s led to startups popping up all over the country.  

Last month, for example, SpaceX launched the first 60 low-earth orbit satellites of its Starlink constellation, managing to fit all of them into a single Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s first 60 satellites took a few months to build but CEO Elon Musk said in May the company aims to get that down to a batch at least every two weeks — a rate he believes the company could reach by the end of the year, reported the Los Angeles Times. The FCC moved quickly to green light to satellite entrepreneurs like OneWeb, SpaceX, and O3b and is considering other applications from entrants like Amazon and Boeing. 

The changes also mean the agency needs to change its satellite rules. That’s why FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated among his colleagues yesterday a draft order to make it easier and cheaper to license small satellites, or smallsats. “I see no reason why a satellite the size of a shoebox, with the life expectancy of a guinea pig, should be regulated the same way as a spacecraft the size of a school bus that will stay in orbit for centuries,” Pai told attendees of a Chamber of Commerce roundtable.

Under the draft order, applicants for satellites weighing less than about 400 lbs. could choose a streamlined alternative to existing licensing procedures that would feature an easier application process, a lower application fee, and a shorter timeline for review. It would offer potential RF interference protection for critical communication links. 

Note that this process would be different from the one used by the conventional non-geostationary satellite constellations in the Commission’s processing rounds and wouldn’t affect proposals for large broadband-delivery constellations like those being deployed by SpaceX and OneWeb. Pai delivered the speech just days before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20.    

July 10, 2019         

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