On 27 March 2018, the FCC released a draft of its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comments on proposals to streamline the licensing process for “small satellites,” more commonly known as “smallsats.” By initiating this proceeding, which has been long-anticipated by the smallsat community, the FCC will be recognizing the growing role of smallsat systems in commercial space activities (which we’ve blogged about here and here) and that greater flexibility in the FCC’s “Part 25” satellite licensing rules would be helpful in facilitating the development of smallsat systems. The draft NPRM follows closely on the heels of other recent FCC orders to streamline and modernize its rules and its efforts (e.g. here and here) to facilitate development and innovation in the satellite industry.
The primary benefits of qualifying for the new proposed streamlined processing would be the significant reduction in the FCC’s current satellite application fee (from US$454,705 to US$30,000) and in the time required for preparation and FCC processing of license applications. The FCC proposes, inter alia, that smallsat systems qualifying for streamlined processing be limited to ones that: 1) have 10 or fewer satellites; 2) deploy satellites below the orbital altitude of the International Space Station or possess propulsion systems; 3) have a total on-orbit lifetime of five years or less; and 4) be able to share a frequency band without precluding future entrants. Smallsat systems not meeting the qualifications could still seek authorization under the more generally applicable Part 25 rules.
The FCC’s draft NPRM also identifies certain frequency bands for potential use by smallsat systems on a shared basis: 137-138 MHz (space-to-Earth); 148-150.05 MHz (Earth-to-space); and 1610.6-1613.8 MHz (Earth-to-space). And the draft NPRM proposes to allow inter-satellite service in the Big LEO frequency bands assigned to Globalstar and Iridium (1615-1617.75 MHz, 1618.725-1626.5 MHz, and 2483.5-2495 MHz bands) as part of the Mobile-Satellite Service allocation in those bands.
The draft NPRM is expected to be adopted within the next month. Parties interested in commenting on the eligibility criteria for smallsat systems, the proposed frequency allocations, and/or other matters raised in the NPRM will have until 45 days after publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register.