Last week, Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced plans to reorganize the agency’s International Bureau by creating a new Space Bureau and a standalone Office of International Affairs.  The announcement, which marks the latest in a string of space-focused actions over the last several months, is a further indication of the FCC’s commitment to leadership in the growing space economy.

The FCC’s International Bureau is responsible for administering international telecommunications programs and policies, as well as managing the licensing of international services.  Currently, these duties extend to the general regulation and licensing of satellite operations, as well.  Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s reorganization plan would create a new Space Bureau to manage satellites and other space-related activities and spin off the International Bureau’s duties related to other international telecommunications matters to a newly created Office of International Affairs.

In a press release announcing the reorganization, Chairwoman Rosenworcel cited the rapid growth in the satellite industry and the emergence of new technologies and businesses focusing on commercial space as justifications for the creation of a new space-focused Bureau.  “Over the past two years, the [FCC] has received applications for 64,000 new satellites,” Chairwoman Rosenworcel stated in a press release, “A new Space Bureau at the FCC will ensure that the agency’s resources are appropriately aligned to fulfill its statutory obligations, improve its coordination across the federal government, and support the 21st century satellite industry.” 

Although the details of the reorganization and the specific duties assigned to each of the new Space Bureau and the Office of International Affairs have not yet been announced, the move is expected to provide more resources for the FCC to address the growing needs of a rapidly evolving satellite sector.  The move also follows through on Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s plans to speed up the satellite licensing process; earlier this year, Chairwoman Rosenworcel announced that the FCC had increased the size of the International Bureau’s Satellite Division – the division responsible for reviewing and granting satellite license applications – by 38 percent.  However, as part of the reorganization, Chairwoman Rosenworcel will need to determine which of the new entities will be responsible for the duties traditionally handled by the International Bureau, including, but not limited to, the review and processing of applications related to international 214 authorization and spectrum negotiations with regulators outside the United States.

The announced reorganization represents another example of the FCC seeking to increase its role in the regulation of space-based industries.  For example, in September, the FCC adopted new orbital debris mitigation rules that require operators of non-geostationary-satellite orbit (“NGSO”) systems operating in low-Earth orbit (“LEO”) to dispose of these satellites within five years of mission completion.  These new rules, which apply to all NGSO satellites launched after September 29, 2024, shorten a decades-old guideline that previously afforded satellite operators a 25-year post-mission disposal timeline.

The new orbital debris mitigation rules follow the FCC’s adoption of a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) that seeks to examine the regulatory needs of the emerging in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (“ISAM”) industry.  Adopted in August, the NOI includes a range of questions on the opportunities and challenges associated with ISAM, which covers a range of activities conducted in orbit and on the surface of space objects.  The FCC has identified space missions such as satellite refueling, the inspection and repair of in-orbit spacecraft, the capture and removal of orbital debris, and the manufacturing of materials in space as the subject of the NOI, which generally seeks to develop a record on ISAM activities and the steps necessary for the FCC to promote their development.   

The creation of a new Space Bureau and the FCC’s recent space-focused actions continue a general trend towards greater agency interest and involvement in the space industry, but a key question moving forward is whether – and to what extent – regulation of space-related activities is within the FCC’s jurisdiction.  For example, several stakeholders that filed in the ISAM proceeding ahead of the October 31 comment deadline flagged that the FCC’s jurisdiction under the Communications Act is limited to spectrum management and licensing for satellite communications.  Although the FCC has a stronger basis to regulate matters related to satellite communications, such as orbital debris mitigation, the agency has no clear statutory authority to regulate the space industry generally.  This question of jurisdiction likely will remain an issue as the FCC continues to increase its involvement in space-related matters.