In the middle of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ambitious Space Month initiative in November, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sat down for an interview with Via Satellite to discuss a regulatory agenda that he believes will cultivate innovation in space. “Some might say that nine space-related items on the agenda for a monthly meeting is overdoing it,” said Pai. “During Space Month, I would instead say that we have dared to boldly go where no FCC has gone before.” If you couldn’t already tell from the language in the FCC’s Space Month agenda announcement, Pai himself is a self-described “space geek.” His mission, he said, is to help the United States be a global leader in space innovation, and deliver cutting-edge applications and connectivity to American consumers on both sides of the digital divide. The following is a preview of the full, cover story interview, which will appear in the February 2019 issue of Via Satellite.
Via Satellite: Why did you decide that November 2018 would be ‘Space Month’ for the FCC?
Ajit Pai: We realized a while ago as we were looking at a bunch of different space-related issues that were on tap — from orbital debris to addressing some of the NGSO constellations applications that we received to streamline various operational rules and licensing processes – that it might be a good idea to consolidate all of these things onto a single agenda. We wanted to highlight the fact that communications is becoming increasingly reliant on not just equipment and services that are here on the ground but technology that is present up in space. So, we came up with the idea of Space Month and I have to say, I think it was a resounding success. We got all of the orders and proposals under the Space Month initiative across the finish line.
Via Satellite: The Space Month announcement blog post that you wrote in October doesn’t sound like it came from a typical FCC chair. There’s a level of personal excitement about space and satellites that we don’t normally see from regulatory oversight, especially during a time when the FCC has been very involved with the U.S. wireless industry’s race to 5G. Do you view these space issues with the same level of importance?
Pai: Yes, definitely! Ultimately, we want all sectors of the industry to innovate and invest and to create and deliver value to consumers. I personally believe, very strongly, that satellite has a huge role to play in the oncoming digital revolution. The Space Month project began with a conversation I had a little more than a year ago with former FCC Chairman Newton Minow. He and I were in Chicago having lunch and we were talking about his famous “Vast Wasteland” speech that he gave to U.S. broadcasters in the 1960s. The most interesting part of that conversation, to me, was him describing how he helped augur in what is considered the beginning of the U.S. commercial space industry. Chairman Minow famously believed that putting satellites into space was more important that putting a human being into space in the 20th century. He said that satellites deliver ideas that outlast the lifespan of any one human being. That’s sort of the way I see it for the 21st century. I think we’re setting the stage for the new space age. There’s no telling what kind of innovation can be realized for the benefit of American and global consumers.
Via Satellite: What do you find most exciting about NGSO constellation systems? Why did you highlight the Telesat, Kepler, LeoSat, and SpaceX constellations in the Space Month announcement?
Pai: Conceptually, we find the NGSO constellation very intriguing. Instead of sending one “bird” deep into space, you send a whole bunch of them into low- or mid-Earth orbit. It could be tremendous. While we had about 20 applications filed by organizations looking to operate NGSO constellations, we teed up the four that we felt were the most ready for action. This assessment was based on, what I consider the ‘heroic’ work of our international bureau staff. They were the unsung heroes of space month. I talked about some of them at an event in Hudson a couple of weeks ago, but the notion that Kepler has of creating an IoT-based LEO business plan is very intriguing. The ideas that LeoSat has in terms of enterprise commercial-grade broadband could be a game changer for end-users in rural areas, as they’ve had quite a bit of difficulty finding these much-needed services.
Via Satellite: You’ve probably read more about the SpaceX Starlink system than most people in our industry. What can you tell us about it? Is it the real deal?
Pai: Obviously, SpaceX’s Starlink system has gained a significant amount of attention, with its ability to create a mesh network of satellites in space. The thought of Starlink being able to provide consumer-focused residential broadband speed and a price-point that is competitive with terrestrial is exciting for a lot of people. We can’t endorse any one particular business plan. But we can give all of them a fair chance to innovate and compete in the U.S. market. Our hope is that if you open up the doors to innovation, a lot of these great companies will figure out ways to make it work.
Via Satellite: The rise of NGSO constellations also raises orbital debris concerns. Many people in the satellite and space community believe that while streamlining regulatory processes for smallsats and NGSOs will help drive business and innovation, LEO traffic needs some sort of management system. In a perfect world, this would be a widespread international effort, with everyone chipping in to manage space traffic and sharing information. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world. In your mind, what’s the perfect balance of government oversight and private industry participation in maintaining a safe orbital environment?
Pai: That’s a great question. We fully understand the concern for orbital debris and that’s something we want to address. With all of these NGSO constellations being launched, we’re fully aware that what goes up must, in some way, come back down. The FCC last updated its rules and regulations for orbital debris back in 2004. We understand that it’s now time for an update, considering changes in the marketplace and changes in technology. We’re working on that right now. We want everyone who is operating in orbit to be a good steward of the space that they’re occupying. We’ll be looking for entrepreneurs to take a leadership role in this area. We’re hopeful that some of the companies that are newer to the space industry will come up with creative ideas that will help us figure out the right way to mitigate some of the crashes god forbid one should happen. We don’t want what happened to Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the movie “Gravity” to happen to anyone in the real world.
The full interview with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai includes conversation about the advancement of GPS, imagery, and sensing technology; why satellites are an important part of the larger 5G ecosystem; the role that young space entrepreneurs and legacy companies play in U.S. technology leadership; streamlining ESIM regulatory structures for GEO and NGSO operators; the FCC’s working relationship with the satellite industry; and his personal experience watching a satellite launch. Stay tuned for the full interview in the February 2019 edition of Via Satellite!
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