22 August 2023

The Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act: A Postmortem Analysis

Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)

As the commercial space sector heats up, many in the astronomy community have expressed concerns over the scientific and cultural impact of the industry. The muddy nature of the regulatory environment around space commercialization complicates matters. For the past few years, the AAS has been engaging with industry leaders, federal agencies, and lawmakers to find the best path forward. One area we have been tracking is the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, or SAT Streamlining Act (H.R. 1338), which recently failed to pass a House vote. What was the act, why did it fail, and what’s next for astronomy? 

What is the SAT Streamlining Act? 

SAT Streamlining Act was introduced to the House by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who are respectively the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill would revise the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) role in granting satellite licenses by streamlining the licensing process and codifying several new regulatory powers for the FCC.   

Currently, no agency has formal authorization to create regulations on space traffic/debris management or general satellite design. The FCC has been attempting to fill this hole in the regulatory environment by expanding requirements for FCC licenses. This includes requiring a cooperation agreement between the NSF and SpaceX over the effects of their Starlink satellites on ground-based astronomy as well as requiring satellite operators to deorbit their low-Earth orbit satellites within five years of their mission completion. The SAT Streamlining Act would have formalized the FCC’s role in regulating commercial satellites by enshrining their powers into law. 

How would it affect astronomy? 

The growth of the commercial satellite industry has led to concerns from the astronomy community over the impacts on astronomy. The AAS Committee for the Protection of Astronomy and the Space Environment (COMPASSE) has been engaging in high-level discussions with companies and government officials over the subject for the past few years. In response, the FCC began requiring coordinating agreements between certain satellite companies and the NSF. For instance, the agreement with SpaceX for their second-generation Starlinks requires them to develop new methods that will mitigate their impact on ground-based astronomy. This includes reducing the optical brightness of their satellites to 7th magnitude or fainter, maintaining orbital elevations of ~700 km or lower, providing the orbital information of the satellites to the community, and avoiding direct beaming over major radio astronomy facilities.

EDC513SpaceX in turn has acted in good faith on this agreement. They’ve developed new technologies such as dielectric mirror films and black paint to minimize reflections. They’ve modified their satellites to be able to dynamically reduce radio interference with observatories, beyond what is legally protected for radio astronomy. The FCC has since required other satellite providers, such as Amazon’s Project Kuiper, to coordinate with the NSF on protections for astronomy.  

However, these agreements are reliant on the FCC having regulatory authority on things such as satellite design and use. In the recent Supreme Court decision on West Virginia vs EPA, the court curtailed the regulatory agency from expanding their power beyond what is congressionally mandated. This could open up the FCC for potential lawsuits over its own regulatory powers. Without explicit legislation, these coordination agreements are reliant on good faith. A satellite company may decide that a lawsuit over such provisions is more economical than a redesign of its satellites.   

Why did it fail? 

On July 25th, the House voted on the SAT Streamlining Act. Bills that are expected to be noncontroversial enough to win at least two-thirds of the House votes are allowed to bypass the House Rules Committee and go directly to the floor for a vote. With this shortcut, the general rules are suspended, but the bill must in turn clear a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority.  

Prior to the vote, the bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and their Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter urging House members to vote against the bill. Their concerns were mainly jurisdictional: they believed that commercial space activities were under the purview of the SS&T Committee, not the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They also stated that “To use a terrestrial example, [the bill] would be tantamount to allowing FCC to regulate the operation and design of a tractor trailer simply due to the fact the driver uses a CB radio operating on FCC-controlled spectrum... [The] FCC does not have sufficient expertise to issue appropriate rules for space safety or orbital debris. Assigning FCC responsibility to both create these rules and assess an applicant’s compliance would divert resources from FCC’s primary mission of assessing the applicant’s spectrum use.”   

In the end, the bill failed in a 250-163-1 vote. 

What’s next? 

While the bill failed, efforts to build a central piece of legislation on commercial space are ongoing in the House and Senate SS&T Committees. During a July 13th House SS&T Hearing, members of the industry spoke to the committee for nearly three hours on the need for a comprehensive bill that clearly defines the regulatory authority of the various agencies involved in space commerce, such as FCC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the newly formed Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce. A glimpse at what that may look like could come with the upcoming FAA reauthorization, which could include regulations on human spaceflight for the first time. Currently, the FAA has a moratorium on establishing specific regulations to allow the industry a learning period to test and develop the technology. That learning period was established in 2004 and has been extended twice but is currently set to expire on October 1st unless Congress further extends or modifies it in the FAA reauthorization. 
The AAS, meanwhile, will continue to advocate for the best interests of our community. We will continue to have discussions with industry groups, federal agencies, and lawmakers on issues related to space commercialization. In October, we will be attending the IAU Symposium on Astronomy and Satellite Constellations, and we are planning several sessions dedicated to the protection of our dark and quiet skies during the upcoming 243rd AAS meeting in New Orleans.