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'Overloaded, Understaffed' IB

Space Bureau Expected to Get Bipartisan Commissioner Support

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel's plans to remake the International Bureau into a Space Bureau and stand-alone Office of International Affairs (OIA) (see 2211030032) will likely get bipartisan support at the commission, former agency officials said. There was initial concern about the announced plan from House Commerce Committee ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., for potentially taking limelight away from the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act (see 2211040039), but those concerns seemingly have been papered over, a current commission staffer told us. We were told commissioners will likely see the Space Bureau as a good thing, especially if it can streamline the regulatory approval process for applicants.

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An agency reorganization involving creating a new bureau or office requires commissioners' approval of rules changes that rewrite, in this case, the delegated authority of the International Bureau and its chief, and establishes the delegated authorities of the Space Bureau and OIA, a former official said. He said there's a clear need to consult with the House and Senate Commerce committees, plus a sign-off from Appropriations. Reaching an agreement with the union on issues affecting members, such as who's reassigned where, also makes the reorganization easier, he said.

National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said in a statement if the reorganization is ultimately approved, NTEU Local 209 will assert its right under its contract with the FCC to bargain over the impact and implementation "to ensure that employee voices are heard and considered." He said it will look to protect the workplace flexibility programs available to frontline employees, such as telework, "and contribute ideas that will allow employees to best help the agency accomplish its mission."

It remains unknown when a draft order will be presented to the commissioners. “The process will move forward to completion after a vote by the Commission, followed by appropriate coordination and/or approvals from OMB, Congress and our union," a commission spokesperson emailed.

The International Bureau now "is overloaded and understaffed," the Olin Satellite + Spectrum Technology & Policy Group said Thursday as it petitioned the commission to revise its non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite system rules to include a shot clock by when it has to make a license decision on NGSO applications. The Olin Group of satellite researchers said the average review time for a processing round applications is growing, "Delays are cascading" due to understaffing alongside processing of complex rulemakings and modifications, it said. The major application backlog and increased processing time for modification applications don't line up with FCC goals to put spectrum to use quickly, it said.

Olin applauded the Space Bureau/OIA proposal. It said adopting a one-year shot clock for NGSO fixed satellite service systems and seeking comment on a shot clock for license modifications "would revitalize the NGSO application process," it said. The agency didn't comment

Creating an office or bureau "can occupy a decent amount of time" for a chair if the change is substantive, said former Chairman Ajit Pai, who spearheaded creation of the Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) in 2018 while chairman and now is partner at Searchlight Capital Partners.

A Space Bureau/OIA reorganization should be less difficult than the creation of OEA, which involved pulling economists from many different bureaus, said Akin Gump's Matthew Berry, who was Pai's chief of staff. He said the concept of having a Space Bureau and an OIA should receive fairly broad support, and any difficulties the proposal potentially could face would come from the reorganization details. But if a plan is thought through well, the reorg should be approved relatively easily, he said.

The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau didn't need congressional legislation because it wasn't seeking additional funding, "but it's good to keep Congress briefed" on proposed reorganizations anyway, said Cooley's Robert McDowell, a commissioner when the bureau was established in 2006.

With increasing space launches and growing orbital debris concerns, formalizing the space-related work the commission does already gives it more visibility, said Michael Copps, special adviser at Common Cause and also a commissioner in 2006.

The chair "runs the agency as CEO," emailed former Chairman Tom Wheeler. While Rosenworcel "must get consent from a majority of commissioners, it is her call. With all the leadership Commissioner [Nathan] Simington has shown on space issues, one would expect he’d be supportive. Congress will have an opinion, but clearly this is within the Commission’s authority."

Several former FCCers told us having a bureau vs. an office doesn't matter in terms of operations, but it can matter in terms of optics. Several also said pulling together scattered agency functions under one chief can create more efficiency for a particular mission. Creating a Space Bureau is a way to show the public and stakeholders the commission is emphasizing space issues, Berry said. He said there's no necessity for disparate functions of the International Bureau -- satellite regulation and international relations work, such as maintaining relationships with foreign regulators and representing the commission in multilateral conferences -- to be under the same umbrella.