Last week, the FCC released the text of a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) ahead of its April meeting that seeks comments on a streamlined licensing process for small satellites (“smallsats”) (IB Docket 18-86; DOC-349939A1.pdf; citations herein to paragraph numbers).  The draft NPRM asks for input on characteristics defining smallsats, details of the new streamlined procedure, and possible frequency allocation changes.

Characteristics of a Satellite or System Qualifying for Streamlined Processing.

The draft NPRM proposes no more than 10 satellites be included in a single smallsat license application and whether a limit should be imposed on the number of applications that can be filed by a single entity. (¶27)  No satellite could exceed 180kg mass, and all satellites must be larger than 10cm3 to ensure that they are trackable. (¶32, ¶38) The satellites would be limited to a maximum on-orbit lifetime of 5 years from when the first satellite is on-orbit. (¶28-29) The streamlined process would not allow for renewal or extension of a license, nor would it allow for replacement satellites to be launched. (¶30)

Most of the safety considerations for satellite operation have been retained. The applicant may not have a planned release of operational debris from satellites licensed under the new procedures (¶35), and the requirement for a certification of minimized explosive risk is retained for smallsats. (¶36) The applicant must certify that the probability of collision is less than 0.0001%. (¶37) A casualty assessment must still be made, and a 0% casualty risk demonstrated. (¶39)  Radio emissions must be able to be shut down by a transmitted command. (¶40) Further, if the smallsat will operate in or above the LEO orbit, the applicant must certify that the satellite will be capable of collision avoidance and still retain enough propulsion to de-orbit at the end of its lifetime. (¶33).

Streamlined Processing for Small Satellites.

In addition to the technical information required by FCC Form 312, applicants would be required to (a) certify that its operations will not interfere with those of existing operators; (b) certify that it will not unreasonably preclude future operators from utilizing assigned frequency bands; and (c) provide a brief narrative description illustrating the methods by which future operators will not be unreasonably precluded. (¶43)  These certifications and narrative would avoid the need for a more extensive and complex spectrum sharing demonstration.

The $1M surety bond requirement for FCC non-geostationary satellite system licensees would be modified to add a one-year “grace period” and other mechanisms to avoid the need for posting a bond in many cases. (¶50)  In addition, a $30,000 application fee (rather than the current $454,705 fee for non-geostationary satellite systems) is proposed. (¶76) Regulatory fees will not be addressed until the Commission’s annual review of the overall regulatory fee schedule (¶77)

Changes to Frequency Allocations. 

The draft NPRM seeks comment on potential bands and location of earth stations, and highlights use of the 137-138 MHz band, expanding the existing 148-149.9 MHz allocation to 148-150.5 MHz, and the 1610.6-1613.8 MHz band for smallsats. (¶64) The draft NPRM also contemplates space-to-space communications in the 1615-1617.75 MHz, 1618.725-1626.5 MHz, and 2483.-2495 MHz bands, as well as others, to permit smallsat communications with the Globalstar and Iridium constellations. (¶¶ 72, 73)