FCC Proposes Space Bureau to Regulate Influx of Satellites


Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel testifies during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing titled "Connecting America: Oversight of the FCC," in Rayburn Building on Thursday, March 31, 2022.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed the new bureau at a satellite industry event.
Photo: Tom Williams (AP)

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has announced a plan to launch a bureau dedicated to the space industry, a move prompted by the ever-increasing number of satellites sent to space.

During her speech at the National Press Club on Thursday, Rosenworcel said the commission intends to reorganize the agency, transforming the FCC’s International Bureau into a new Space Bureau and a standalone Office of International Affairs.

Over the past two years, the FCC has received applications for 64,000 new satellites and witnessed an eight-fold increase in the number of applications for fixed-satellite service gateway Earth stations, according to Rosenworcel. “The satellite industry is growing at a record pace, but here on the ground our regulatory frameworks for licensing them have not kept up,” she said. “The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head.”

In an effort to keep up with its duties, the FCC is looking to establish the Space Bureau to handle satellite licensing and regulatory work, as well as develop new regulations for the space industry. “A new Space Bureau at the FCC will ensure that the agency’s resources are appropriately aligned to fulfill its statutory obligations, improve its coordination across the federal government, and support the 21st century satellite industry,” Rosenworcel said.

The FCC is responsible for regulating communications transmitted through radio, television, cable, wire, as well as satellites. The commission licenses radio frequencies used by satellites and ensures that satellite operators properly handle their defunct satellite debris. The FCC recently issued a new order that would require satellites to reenter Earth’s atmosphere five years after their missions end, rather than the previous 25-year deadline. Before that, there were no FCC guidelines in place regarding the deorbiting of satellites.

The satellite industry has been wary that the FCC might be looking to expand its regulatory role beyond its already existing scope. However, Rosenworcel denied those claims. “The changes I am announcing today are not about taking on new responsibilities at the FCC,” she said. “They are about performing our existing statutory responsibilities better and freeing up resources to focus on our mission.” The commission is looking to update its rules and speed up its licensing process as part of its efforts to keep up with the industry, according to Rosenworcel.

The FCC’s latest proposal was likely prompted by the increasing number of internet satellites swarming above. Earth’s orbit is indeed getting more crowded, especially with companies like SpaceX and Amazon building constellations of internet satellites. SpaceX has already launched more than 3,000 satellites with CEO Elon Musk hoping to achieve a total of 42,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, while Amazon’s Project Kuiper wants to launch 3,236 satellites.

As the space industry continues to take on a new form, and the number of satellites in Earth orbit increases, a new space bureau will likely be the first of many changes directed towards the regulation of space.

More: Defense Department Announces Plans for a Secure Internet in Space



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