This week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed the circulation of a draft order among the agency’s commissioners that would set forth new, streamlined procedures for licensing small satellites (better known as “smallsats”) with a maximum “wet mass” of 180 kilograms. 

The draft order, which is scheduled tentatively for a vote at the FCC’s upcoming monthly open meeting on August 1, was posted for public viewing yesterday on the FCC’s website. Speaking earlier this week at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce policy roundtable, Pai lauded recent advances in satellite and space launch technology that have enabled entrepreneurs to “launch into space more equipment, more cheaply.” Such advances, said Pai, are providing “unprecedented opportunity for the commercial space sector” which “means that we now have in our sights new competition in the broadband marketplace and new opportunities for rural Americans who lack access to high-speed Internet access.” Because much of this opportunity is premised upon the development and proliferation of smallsats and similar innovations, Pai told his audience that he had crafted a proposal to establish “an entirely new regulatory process designed for smallsats” that would enable smallsat operators “to choose a streamlined alternative to existing licensing procedures” currently designed for large-scale satellite constellations.

Acknowledging that current FCC licensing rules “were generally not developed with small satellite systems in mind,” the draft order, in the words of an FCC fact sheet, would create an alternative, optional application process within Part 25 of the agency’s rules for smallsats, which “have gained popularity among satellite operators.” To qualify for streamlined licensing, smallsat applicants must (1) propose ten or fewer satellites under a single authorization, (2) demonstrate the ability to share use of authorized frequencies with current satellite operations and without constraining the ability of future satellite entrants to use the band, and (3) demonstrate low risk from an orbital debris perspective. Smallsats to be licensed under the streamlined process must have (a) a total in-orbit lifetime of six years or less, (b) a maximum “wet mass” of 180 kilograms, and (c) propulsion capabilities or deployment within an altitude of 600 kilometers. Prospective smallsat licensees would use a new streamlined application, would be exempted from the FCC’s satellite processing round procedures and would be provided with a one-year grace period in which to post surety bonds. Highlighting the importance of “forward-looking rules” which would bypass the FCC’s current “byzantine” satellite licensing process, Pai asserted: "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."