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Ignore Space Force, Satellite Regulations need Reform

The last half-century’s satellite boom has been vital to the construction of our current society — and your correspondents hardly have to tell Daily readers that it will be an inevitable part of our future technological development. Satellite internet guarantees the success of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Facebook or Uber. GPS allows for precision in military and domestic tasks from targeted drone strikes to taxi pick-ups. Communication satellites allow us to call our loved ones from the wilderness or watch live broadcasts from the far corners of the globe.

The most recent generation of satellite startups, companies like Planet, OneWeb and NanoRacks, promise to change the game even further. Although previous attempts have been made to bring Silicon Valley mindsets to satellite technology developments, this wave of new players are basing their projects on the ever-decreasing cost of launches to orbit. True to the startup mentality, many of these new ventures expect to fail, but this wave of startups points to a more important phenomenon: As even small players gain access the satellite market, we begin to see what observers and consulting firms like Deloitte are calling a “democratization of space.”

Like in the early days of the internet economy, government regulation is necessary to police the industry — especially since space is a shared resource. Regulators understand, for example, that it would be extremely unwise to allow any customer to launch any product they desired. This is a real issue: Just last year, the illegal launch of two small satellites aboard an Indian rocket drew government ire, since the Federal Communications Commission had denied the startup manufacturer a license because their satellites were too small to track.

Since its re-establishment last year, the National Space Council (NSC) has worked with the administration to enact several excellent reforms: In May, “Space Policy Directive 2” ordered a reorganization of the method used by disparate agencies from the FCC to NOAA to authorize satellite launches. In response, the Commerce Department began unifying this approval process into one system. In June, “Space Policy Directive 3” authorized the publication of the government’s space traffic data for collision avoidance — and, more dramatically, ordered a host of space-related government organizations to develop space traffic standards. Finally, the NSC has emphasized its focus on industry by creating a council of business leaders, called the User Advisory Group, to advocate for changing industry interests.

This is good progress, but we recommend further action to ensure a fertile community for American space startups:

  1. First, the Commerce Department must accelerate its attempts to consolidate space licensing, and find ways of preventing monopolies. Small companies cannot effectively compete for satellite licenses with the seasoned legal and policy teams of Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop, even if new startups have superior technology.
  2. Second, export controls must be reexamined to allow small businesses to attract international customers. Satellite technology was added to the Federal Munitions List in 1998, making it heavily policed by the State Department. While done for valid national security reasons, this has since cost U.S. companies billions of dollars. Now that satellite technology is more widespread, these export restrictions should be reconsidered.
  3. Finally, the administration must continue to emphasize its interest in regulatory reform, especially under the increasingly bitter Space Force debate. While the U.S. does need to decide if and how it will expand the military into space, the satellite industry shouldn’t have to wait for Congress to finish arguing before it can expect regulatory reform.

With the public attention directed to human spaceflight, ISS debacles and military reorganization, it is easy to overlook the importance of new satellite technology startups. For the first time, small companies have the opportunity to make decisive changes to the stratified space industry, ensuring our technological superiority for years to come. America has made good progress in pushing out into humanity’s last frontier — with a sensible regulatory environment, we can continue this progress.

Andrew Gatherer wrote this column for the Stanford Student Space Initiative’s column “Looking Up.'”

Contact him at gatherer ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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