By a unanimous vote yesterday, the FCC’s five commissioners approved further refinements to its satellite and earth station licensing rules.  In the words of an FCC press release, the changes “comprehensively simplify and streamline the regulatory approval process for satellite licenses” as part of the agency’s ongoing process reform initiative.  Yesterday’s Report and Order (R&O) builds upon sweeping changes to the satellite license and service rules that were enacted by the FCC in 2013 and resulted in the revision or elimination of 150 satellite regulations contained in Part 25 of the FCC’s rules.  The R&O eliminates 50 additional regulations and streamlines another 200 to promote operational flexibility, accommodate evolving technologies and reduce regulatory costs and burdens.

The centerpiece of the R&O is the FCC’s decision to allow prospective satellite licensees to submit requests for  advanced publication and coordination of their proposed space stations to the International Telecommunications  Union (ITU) before they file their license applications with the FCC.  Under previous FCC policy, the FCC would not initiate the ITU registration process until a satellite applicant submitted a detailed application to the agency for the frequency band and orbital location of its proposed space station.  Observing that the U.S. “is the only administration in the world that imposes such a restriction” and that the restriction places U.S. satellite firms at a competitive disadvantage against foreign counterparts that “are able to secure ITU priority over American licensed companies,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn applauded her colleagues for “[eliminating] that unfavorable distinction.”

Among other things, the R&O also: (1) amends the two-degree spacing rule to accommodate usage of small antennas, (2) expands eligibility for “routine” earth station licensing while simplifying the process of licensing such stations, and (3) eliminates interim satellite milestone implementation requirements.  To deter spectrum warehousing, the R&O also enacts a post-licensing bond requirement with a base value of $500,000, which builds in value to increase an applicant’s financial liability the longer it holds its license without launching service.  Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, however, questioned whether “the application surety bond is the right approach,” noting that “other countries’ administrations do not require such a bond” and “sufficient justification for such a bond seems lacking in record.” 

Describing the rulemaking proceeding resulting in yesterday’s R&O as “one of the most comprehensive under my process reform initiative,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler voiced optimism “that these and other process reforms will facilitate new innovations and the delivery of better products and services to the American people.” As an Intelsat spokesman commended the FCC “for examining and revising its satellite licensing rules,” Satellite Industry Association President Tom Stroup predicted that the rule changes “will promote a level playing field for U.S.