Space Month at the FCC
With the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man in theaters, many Americans have been fondly remembering and celebrating the achievements of the U.S. space program in the 1960s. While America’s first astronauts have been appropriately lionized by historians and filmmakers, they are only part of America’s rich history of space exploration.
Less noted but also historic, in July 1962, the U.S. launched into space Telstar, the first active communications satellite. This enabled the first live, trans-Atlantic television broadcast. To put the importance of satellites into perspective, then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously told President Kennedy, “Communications satellites are more important than sending a man into space because they will launch ideas, and ideas will last longer than men and women.” Inspirational words indeed.
In crafting the Commission’s November agenda, I was also struck by Chairman Minow’s less-well-known comments made to a Congressional panel. When asked by Senator Russell Long of Louisiana how the U.S. could stay ahead of the Russians, Minow said, “We should try to get the Russians to adopt the same bureaucratic regulatory system we have for communications[,] . . . which will tie them up in red tape.”
To this day, satellites continue to deliver tremendous benefits for the American people. So in November, during what we’ve dubbed Space Month, the FCC will take up nine items to ensure that America leads in the New Space Age, with an emphasis on cutting through the red tape.
We start with improving a satellite-enabled technology that millions of Americans rely on every day without even knowing it: the positioning, navigation, and timing service known to most Americans as the Global Positioning System, or GPS. Consumers regularly use GPS to navigate while driving, to locate a store, and even to find our phones. Meanwhile, businesses are using GPS for high-precision agriculture, fleet tracking, and monitoring drones. Given all these uses, it’s important for us to take steps to improve GPS when we can. That’s why the Commission will vote in November on allowing American devices to access the European global navigation satellite system, known as Galileo. Enabling the Galileo system to work in concert with the U.S. GPS constellation should make GPS more precise, reliable, and resilient — a boon to consumers and businesses alike.
Speaking of constellations, we’ll also be voting on a package of orders that would give the green light to companies seeking to roll out new and expanded services using new non-geostationary satellite constellations. Kepler is looking to create a new satellite system for the Internet of Things, and LeoSat would like to offer high-speed connectivity for enterprises and underserved communities. We’re aiming to approve both requests. And we’ve also targeted for approval the requests of SpaceX and TeleSat Canada to expand the frequencies they can use so that their fleets of low Earth orbit satellites can offer even better broadband service.
To help these new constellations have a real impact down here on Earth, we’re also looking to expand the opportunities for satellites to serve Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs). We started down this path in September, when we made it easier for geostationary-orbit satellites to target ESIMs, improving the transmission of data to moving vehicles like ships, airplanes, or school buses. Building on that item, I’ve circulated a proposal to expand the scope of our ESIMs rules to cover communications with non-geostationary orbit satellites. This proposal would unlock new uses of satellites, ensuring that those who need broadband on-the-go can access the technology that best meets their needs.
Two more space items should help ensure our rules don’t hold back the launch of new satellite systems. One proposal would create a new unified license for space stations and earth stations operating in a geostationary, fixed-satellite service satellite network. A product of the FCC’s 2016 Biennial Review, the proposal would provide a new, streamlined license option for satellite operators and would reduce unnecessary reporting burdens. Another proposal would update our rules governing direct broadcast satellite service so that it too could benefit from the streamlining of our rules for launching satellite service in other bands.
Now, it’s true here on Earth that what goes up must come down. But that’s not always the case in space. There are more things being launched into space, resulting in more orbital debris milling about. This reduces the space available for new satellites and satellite systems and increases the risk profile of every launch. In space, even a centimeter-wide object can wreak devastating damage to satellites. If you want a graphic illustration of the problem, just rewatch the movie Gravity. And the problem of orbital debris is only set to grow as we see the deployment of CubeSats and other small, relatively inexpensive satellites, thousands of which can be deployed in constellations. We’ll have to address this growing risk in order to preserve our ability to promote more innovation and investment in space. That’s why I’ve proposed the first comprehensive review of the Commission’s orbital debris rules since their adoption in 2004. This proposal aims to improve and clarify these rules based on improvements in mitigation practices, and to address recent market developments.
Even though it’s Space Month, there’s still more work to do on the ground. That’s why we’ll also vote on a Report and Order involving hearing aid compatibility. This proposal would strengthen our website disclosure requirements for wireless service providers, ensuring consumers can find the information they need. It also would eliminate unnecessary and outdated wireless hearing aid compatibility reporting requirements and replace them with a streamlined annual certification.
And finally, as part of the Commission’s ongoing Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, we’ll also consider a Report and Order to update certain notice requirements that principally apply to cable operators. Among other things, we’ll allow these companies to send written communications to subscribers via e-mail, rather than by paper mail.
Some might say that nine space-related items on the agenda for a monthly meeting is overdoing it. During Space Month, I would instead say that we have dared to boldly go where no FCC has gone before.