Bill to reform FCC satellite licensing unexpectedly fails to pass in House vote

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A bipartisan bill to reform the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) process for licensing satellite systems unexpectedly failed to pass in the House on Tuesday after some lawmakers argued that the measure would grant the agency too much authority.

The House considered the legislation — titled the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act — under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process to approve legislation that has at least two-thirds support. It is typically used for non-controversial bills.

The FCC bill, however, did not garner enough support to clear the chamber, failing in a 250-163-1 vote.

The vote varied along party lines: 163 Republicans and 87 Democrats supported the measure, while 50 Republicans and 113 Democrats opposed it. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) voted present.

The legislation is sponsored by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the chair and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The measure calls on the FCC to create a new framework for licensing satellites and seeks to reform rules to persuade operators to locate their operations in the U.S., according to Rodgers. Specifically, it would have established deadlines for the FCC to process applications pertaining to earth and space stations, per the Congressional Budget Office.

And, according to a fact sheet, the legislation would also reduce outdated regulatory requirements, encourage innovation and investment in efficient technologies and support creating performance requirements as a way to promote responsible use of space.

Tucked into the 48-page bill, however, are clauses pertaining to “space safety and orbital debris,” which fueled some opposition on Tuesday.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, argued in a statement that the bill “includes a significant and unprecedented grant of authority to the FCC, explicitly directing the agency to issue rules related to both ‘space safety and orbital debris’ that applicants must comply with to obtain a license for use of FCC-controlled spectrum.”

“The FCC has exclusive jurisdiction over the licensing of spectrum use, but the language in the bill would extend to that reach to the design and operation of any space object that carries an FCC-licensed system,” he continued.

“Not only would this new authority fly in the face of existing efforts to coordinate space safety and orbital debris roles across the federal government, but it would task the FCC with regulatory responsibilities that are outside of the agency’s areas of expertise,” he later added.

The chairman said the bill “goes a step too far and still contains a massive and problematic expansion of FCC’s authorities.”

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), the chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, sounded a similar note, expressing concern in a statement that the legislation “goes beyond the task of streamlining this process and instead grants FCC additional authorities for which it is not suited and would be duplicative of authorities at other agencies.”

The bill’s sponsors, for their part, advocated for passage of the measure on the floor Tuesday, arguing that it is important to keep the U.S. ahead of other nations.

“The SAT Streamlining Act would reform and improve the FCC’s process to make the United States the destination of choice for licensing satellite communications systems without expanding the FCC’s authority,” Rodgers said.

“It is evident that other countries, including our foreign adversaries, are also aggressively dominate this industry. So it’s imperative that Congress act now to retain our country’s leadership position in the satellite marketplace,” Pallone said. “Now [the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act] helps to accomplish this goal.”

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