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5-0 OK Likely

ISAM NPRM Shows Emerging Industry Has Arrived

The in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing draft NPRM on the FCC's February agenda would set an overall ISAM licensing framework, but just as important is the NPRM's very existence, space experts tell us. “It's the arrival of ISAM as a serious part of the space economy," said Stephen Ganote, head of the space team at management consultancy Oliver Wyman. A 5-0 approval is likely, space experts say.

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The NPRM grew out of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations' concern about lack of an existing licensing pathway and frequency allocations for ISAM activities, Brian Weeden, its former executive director, said in an email. The draft NPRM is the result of rounds of back and forth between the FCC and industry, he said.

The draft NPRM follows the April 2022 release of a national ISAM strategy by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (see 2208010035).

In the draft, the FCC proposes tweaking its rules to create an ISAM-specific licensing in its Part 25 rules for licensing commercial satellites. Having a rule section specific to ISAM vehicles "will make the process transparent for the industry, providing applicants for authorization for ISAM space stations one rule section that details the application process and clearly indicates the other rule sections with which applicants must comply," according to the draft NPRM. Under it, ISAM missions would be subject to orbital debris mitigation rules. And the FCC would allow Part 5 experimental licenses for ISAM missions not providing commercial service.

ISAM operations aren’t specifically called out in the ITU’s Table of Frequency Allocations, meaning it has no rights to spectrum, emailed Peter Dohm, principal RF engineer at ISAM startup Varda Space Industries. The FCC’s proposed framework “is the first step towards getting ISAM companies a place at the table to hopefully have frequency allocations in the future,” he said. The FCC Space Bureau's understanding of the need to support the emerging ISAM market "speaks volumes to how the FCC wants to help the US continue to be the leader in ISAM and help foster innovation instead of stifling it," he said. "To be clear, this framework is just the first step towards helping ISAM obtain permanent frequency allocations and potentially a full ITU service definition in the future," he said. "But in the interim, the FCC has provided guidance and help to the ISAM industry, much like it has done previously with the small sat industry. "

A space company executive told us that one concern likely to be a focus for ISAM operators when they file NPRM comments will be the lack of dedicated spectrum for ISAM missions. The draft NPRM tentatively concludes that ISAM communications activities can use existing service allocations, with the FCC saying it will review ISAM operators' requests for frequency on a case-by-case basis. While ISAM missions can likely coordinate spectrum use most of the time, there could be instances where protected spectrum is needed, the company executive said.

The ISAM framework, along with the FCC's open proceeding allowing use of new spectrum bands by manned and unmanned spacecraft, could pave the way for development of future space stations and other expanded economic activity in space, Venable lawyer Laura Stefani blogged last week.

The nascent ISAM industry is relying on government contracts initially, said Oliver Wyman's Ganote. A regulatory path for ISAM missions could help smooth a continued flow of needed government dollars, he said. The FCC's proposed framework isn't intended to address every ISAM item but is an important first step in mainstreaming ISAM in regulatory and policy discussions, he added. It's "almost expected" that issues arising in the next few years are not addressed in the draft NPRM, he said.