Launch Spectrum from the FCC

The Federal Communications Commission released its semiannual Unified Agenda in the Federal Register on January 12, 2018.  A rulemaking that has been on the agenda for several years now addresses spectrum allocation for three space-related purposes.  The notice of proposed rulemaking, Federal Earth Stations—Non-Federal Fixed Satellite Service Space Stations; Spectrum for Non-Federal Space Launch Operations, came out July 1, 2013, but, over four and a half years later, the FCC has yet to release its final rule.  The Agenda, in fact, states that the Commission has not determined the next action, indicating that a final rule may no longer be in the works.

In 2013, the Commission proposed to change its Allocation Table to provide access to spectrum on an interference-protected basis to Commission licensees for use during the launch of launch vehicles. The Commission also sought comment broadly on the future spectrum needs of the commercial space sector.  The FCC allows commercial operators, whether of satellites or radio stations, access to spectrum for commercial uses. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) administers spectrum set aside for federal users.   Accordingly, for government launches taking place at federal ranges such as Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, the government operators use federal spectrum and don’t apply to the FCC for a license as commercial operators must.  Instead, they obtain access through the federal range.

For a few decades now, commercial launch operators have launched from federal launch sites such as the Cape and Wallops. The FCC has been issuing Special Temporary Authorizations under Part 5 of its experimental rules to allow commercial operators access to the ranges’ federal spectrum.  STAs do not provide an operator protection from interference from federal users, and each commercial proposal to use the federal spectrum must be granted on an individual basis.  As Commissioner Clyburn noted,

Given the high cost of launches and the safety concerns of manned spaceflights, relying on non-interference use of spectrum, is not a practical, long-term solution. Therefore, this NPRM offers well-defined application and coordination processes, to enable commercial operators, to directly acquire the optimal type of licenses needed, for communications during space launches. The Notice of Inquiry (NOI) section of the item properly tries to anticipate other communications needs of commercial space missions, such as re-entry, or the “on orbit” phase of a mission, that could require changes in spectrum allocations.

The safety system for a launch vehicle depends on signals to and from the rocket arriving at their intended destinations, so that the operator may know if the vehicle is off course and then transmit a signal to destroy it.  At a federal range, a federal safety officer transmits the destruct signal.  The FCC saw two possible factors that might require commercial access to the spectrum used for destruct signals:  a commercial operator seeking to use its own equipment, and the advent of commercial spaceports not operated by NASA or the Department of Defense.  In the meantime, it looks like commercial launch operators will continue to rely on the federal ranges for destruct actions.