House of Representatives Legislation
On February 11, 2022, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) announced discussion drafts for two bipartisan bills that seek to promote innovation and national security while improving American competitiveness and leadership in the commercial space sector. In particular, the discussion drafts aim to spark conversation about driving U.S. leadership in next-generation satellite communications networks, with Pallone and McMorris Rodgers calling them “an important step towards developing a bipartisan solution.”
Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act
The Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act would impose several new obligations on the FCC’s non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) space station licensing and regulation, including to:
- Adopt new rules for orbital debris performance and safety standards (on satellite collision probability and disposal, for example) and application disclosures (on radiofrequency use, power levels, and spectrum-coordination, for example);
- Consider and confirm public interest criteria before approving an application, specifically that the application will not: (1) cause harmful interference; (2) diminish “efficiency of spectrum use”; (3) affect competition adversely; and (4) in the case of mass market retail services, disrupt service to the “largest economically feasible number of users”;
- Satisfy new application processing timelines:
- Initial authorization: 1 year, unless the application concerns ownership issues or unallocated spectrum;
- Authorization modification (standard): 180 days;
- Authorization modification (expedited if reducing spectral or orbital profile, among other criteria): 90 days;
- Authorization renewal: 180 days;
- Emergency licensing (possibility for life/property dangers or national security reasons);
- Enforce good-faith coordination requirements for spectrum sharing; and
- Evaluate when priority rights might expire for early filers in frequency bands that are subject to NGSO processing round procedures (“sunset rules,” for example).
Secure Space Act
The Secure Space Act would prohibit the FCC from granting a license or U.S. market access for a NGSO space station system owned or operated by an entity deemed to be a national security risk. The Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act authorizes the FCC to designate communications equipment or services to its covered list if they are produced or provided by entities or their affiliates determined by the U.S. government to pose a risk to the U.S. supply chain or national security (predominantly Chinese entities).
The proposals come as the FCC itself is also actively working on substantially similar matters for space station licensing and orbital debris. The FCC has an open proceeding on NGSO fixed-satellite service spectrum sharing rules. Comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking are due March 25, 2022. The FCC also adopted new orbital debris rules in 2021 that apply to all space stations, with open issues still pending before the FCC on certain rules, including aggregate satellite collision risk and indemnification/insurance requirements. How the FCC may navigate efforts to complete these rulemakings while Congress considers similar legislation remains to be seen.
Although the bill proposals overlap matters within nearly identical FCC rulemakings, both Democratic and Republican members of the FCC have lauded the discussion drafts as an important step toward better space policy. Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel noted that the current “laws were written to address a different satellite ecosystem[,]” welcomed the “bipartisan and bold effort by Congress[,]” and acknowledged the FCC’s “tremendous work” in application review and rulemaking. Senior Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr “applaud[ed] the bipartisan [legislation]” and said the bills “would strengthen America’s space-based leadership.” Commissioner Nathan Simington explained the legislation will help to “secure America’s role as a jurisdiction of first resort for the most innovative new companies [in the sector]” and address orbital debris challenges.
On January 13, 2022, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Gary Peters (D-MI) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Satellite Cybersecurity Act. The bill would require the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to develop (1) voluntary cybersecurity recommendations related to the development, operation, and maintenance of commercial space station systems, and (2) a public clearinghouse containing publicly available commercial space station cybersecurity resources, including materials specifically addressing the concerns of small businesses that own and operate commercial space stations. The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on federal government support for commercial space station cybersecurity.
The House discussion drafts are a starting point, and Representatives Pallone and McMorris Rodgers “encourage[d] all interested parties to engage with [their] staffs” as they further develop the legislation. The Senate discussion draft has not seen activity since its January introduction, but that may change if the House bills gain traction. While bicameral negotiations and debate continue, interested parties should evaluate the bills and consider whether and how to engage Congress.
Authored by Gerry Oberst, George John, Christina Isnardi, and Ambia Harper.