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Policy Experts Call for Overhaul of FCC Space Bureau Rules

The FCC's space regulatory regime is arguably due for a massive overhaul, space policy experts said Monday at a pair of Tech Policy Institute space events. SpaceX Vice President-Satellite Policy David Goldman said a coming wave of state-backed mega-constellation competitors will have resources that U.S. operators lack, and the U.S. must consider redoing its rules in response to that environment. FCC Space Bureau Chief Technologist Whitney Lohmeyer didn't address the idea directly. Christopher Yoo, University of Pennsylvania Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science, said the Space Bureau might lack the technical expertise to tackle issues like orbital debris.

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Many of the agency's space rules are decades old, and in some cases out of date, Goldman said. Creating the Space Bureau was a step in the right direction and the next step should include a comprehensive evaluation of existing rules, he said. The "case-by-case" approach of evaluating individual applications may be insufficient as applications pile up, he added. The increased challenge from foreign space operators necessitates a more flexible licensing environment in response, "rather than slowing things" with a multiyear review process, said Goldman.

Auctions aren't suitable for satellite spectrum, but other terrestrial spectrum approaches potentially should be replicated in regard to satellite spectrum management, Goldman said. The terrestrial licensing regime allows more flexible licensing and more fungible licenses -- approaches that would have value with space spectrum, he said.

While the FCC has become the nation's primary space regulator by default, orbital debris "is a stretch of their capabilities," Yoo said. However, Yoo doesn't know what agency should have authority over space. He said the FCC Space Bureau might require a fundamental change in its staff and culture.

Satellite operator disagreements over calls for the ITU to set new equivalent power flux density limit rules (see 2402060048) erupted again during the TPI event. Goldman said incumbent satellite operators broadly have to be pushed to innovate, instead of the rules continuing to protect inefficient systems that don't prioritize spectrum efficiency. To that end, there needs to be innovation of EPFD rules now, as well as changes at the 2027 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-27), he said.

Not a participant in the panel talk, Brennan Price, Viasat regulatory affairs director, phoned in to push back. Existing EPFD rules are important to the ability of all companies to operate, he said. He argued that WRC-23 made it clear WRC-27 can't tackle EPFD limit changes. Kalpak Gude, domestic regulatory affairs head-Amazon's Kuiper, disagreed. WRC-23 opened the door to study the issue, and the protection limits were created to protect geostationary orbit (GSO) services like video distribution and are very different from what's needed for internet connectivity, Gude said.

Pointing to concerns voiced at WRC-23 by some nations reliant on GSO services, Gude said non-geostationary orbit operators need to do a better job of assuring them that NGSOs will comply with the rules and also bring value. At the same time, he said, some of the debate at WRC-23 about protecting incumbent services was really more about protecting GSOs from competition.

It would be "helpful" if there were consistency among the FCC, Commerce and NOAA orbital debris mitigation requirements, said Edgar Rivas, senior policy adviser to Senate Space Subcommittee member John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.

Gude said China will deploy mega constellations that won't seek U.S. market access and thus operate regardless of U.S. rules. He said getting China, as well as other nations, to move in the same direction will require encouragement of industry-led best practices. All the mega-constellation operators are in constant contact with one another and coordinate activities, despite being business competitors, he said.