Brian Higginbotham
Former Senior Economist


July 11, 2019


The demand for small satellites (smallsats) has experienced a six-fold increase since 2012 and licensing requests are expected to accelerate, according to Dr. Bhavya Lal at the Institute for Defense Analysis. The projected surge in activity raises several salient points about the sustainability of this sector in low-earth orbit. On July 9, the U.S. Chamber’s Procurement and Space Industry Council convened a roundtable of key agency and industry principals at Chamber headquarters in Washington, D.C. to discuss policy options and tradeoffs for this entrepreneurial segment of the space economy.

The roundtable emphasized the need for a mature regulatory regime to ensure adequate encryption, avoid interference, and provide for deorbit assurance. As Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president and chief policy officer remarked, “As technology pushes the boundaries of human reach into the space domain, regulations must be cautiously and deliberately implemented to ensure launch companies, operators, and service suppliers maintain their qualitative edge.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai concurred with Mr. Bradley saying, “We aim to craft forward-looking rules that safeguard the public interest and enable the private sector to deliver consumer value. That’s the only way to ensure that America remains the best place in the world to license and launch satellites.”

Chariman Pai’s remarks emphasized the importance of smallsats for addressing the FCC’s twin goals of closing the digital divide and promoting innovation. To accomplish those goals the chairman announced draft regulations he had submitted to the FCC Board before the roundtable. The full draft will be available July 11, but the details were explicated in his remarks.

The draft regulations to establish a streamlined licensing system will be voted on August 1. The proposal would reduce the licensing burden for a subset of increasingly important smallsats. “To qualify for the streamlined process, these smallsats would have to be no more than 180 kg, or about 400 lbs. They would also have to quickly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere if something goes wrong and ground operators lose contact; their maximum lifespan would be six years,” Chairman Pai said.

The U.S. Chamber hosted the event in conjunction with the SmallSat Alliance. Steve Nixon, the association’s president, applauded the chairman’s announcement to address the FCC’s satellite licensing costs. “Right now, if you want to apply for an FCC application for a geosynchronous bird — which might be a half a billion dollar asset — that application fee is $130,000,” Nixon said. “If you want to do something in [low-earth orbit] with a small satellite, right now the application fee for that is about $450,000 — and that satellite might only cost that much, so there is a little bit of a discrepancy there,” Nixon was quoted saying in Space News.

While these proposed streamlined procedures are a necessary step, there will be questions from industry. For example, the 180 kg limit does not line up with smallsat categories from the FAA. The FAA defines a micro satellite by weight of 11 to 200 kg. The industry has traditionally treated satellites below 600 kg as smallsats, so these draft regulations really only apply to a subset of this new sector — they also don’t apply to satellite constellations, such as those from OneWeb or Amazon.

The U.S. has historically led the way in space exploration, and we must lead in commercial space. To facilitate this growth, the industry will need predictability. The U.S. Chamber’s roundtable event, Small Satellite Integration: Implications for Encryption, Interference, and Deorbit Assurance, was the start of its involvement in this important sector.

Previously, the council examined the challenges inherent in sharing national airspace among space launch and commercial aviation sectors, in addition to exploring the expanding possibilities for companies like Anhueser Busch and Sanofi pharmaceuticals to conduct cutting edge research aboard the International Space Station. As U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue often remarks, space is the new economic frontier and the U.S. Chamber is pleased to be involved in this endeavor.

To learn more, watch the webcast here.

About the authors

Brian Higginbotham

Brian Higginbotham is former senior economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.