SpaceX, Relativity and others urge FCC to stay in its lane

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seal is seen on a smartphone screen with the US flag in the background.

Major space companies, including SpaceX and Relativity, are urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to stick to its purview -- spectrum usage -- as it looks to potentially update its rules for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) missions.

There is plenty that the FCC could -- and should do -- to support ISAM missions that sit squarely within its regulatory bounds, the companies said. SpaceX and others, as well as startups like Orbit Fab, which wants to build refueling depots in space, and Starfish Space, which is developing a satellite servicing vehicle, submitted recommendations related to spectrum and ISAM. The commission also heard from Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance and other space companies and industry groups.

“The biggest chunk of this proceeding is the question of, do we need new spectrum allocation for ISAM?” Brian Weeden, executive director of The Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “And that is absolutely within the FCC’s existing authority.”

The FCC requested comments from industry after it opened a new proceeding on ISAM in August. In a statement, the commission said it specifically sought to understand how it could “update, clarify, or modify its rules and licensing processes” to support these emerging capabilities in space. SpaceX, Relativity and others said in their responses that the FCC should bring its considerable authority to bear on issues related to spectrum use and licensing -- and only issues related to spectrum use and licensing.

“The Commission must handle this potentially important but still nascent industry with care, exercising caution not to unintentionally stifle innovation by stepping outside the authority expressly delegated to it by Congress,” SpaceX said.

Relativity Space and the industry association Commercial Spaceflight Federation separately argued that the FCC's involvement in issues outside of those related to spectrum could result in duplicative approvals processes. These could be especially challenging for smaller startups and newer space entrants to navigate.

The new proceeding is one of a handful of actions the commission has taken in recent months to keep pace with the growing commercial space industry. In September, the FCC also updated rules related to spacecraft deorbiting and orbital debris management, voting that satellite operators must deorbit satellites in low Earth orbit five years after their mission conclusion, rather than 25.

But such actions have raised questions as whether the FCC has sufficient authority to pass such rules. As of yet, Congress has made no gesture toward expanding or extending that authority.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel appeared to tacitly acknowledge these concerns in a speech to the Satellite Industry Association, announcing that the FCC will establish a new bureau dedicated to handling space activities.

“The changes I am announcing today are not about taking on new responsibilities at the FCC,” she said. “They are about performing our existing statutory responsibilities better and freeing up resources to focus on our mission.”