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A lot of people are wondering why the FCC has jurisdiction over this. The reason is that Swarm is operating an unauthorized experimental radio station on American soil. [0] That's always been illegal, as it should be.

That shouldn't be the end of the discussion, though. Why didn't the FCC grant Swarm a license in the first place? Basically, the FCC claims the right to take action to minimize the danger of orbital debris created by US-operated satellites. [1] According to the FCC, this jurisdiction is granted by the Communications Act of 1934. [2] But that requires a very broad interpretation of the law. If promoting "the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest" lets the FCC make regulations about orbital debris, then surely it also applies to just about anything that has a radio.

I don't like what Swarm did here -- I think they are legitimately endangering other satellites -- but I don't like the precedent the FCC is setting either. This seems like a classic case of bureaucratic overreach to me.

Primary sources:

[0] Swarm's license application: https://apps.fcc.gov/oetcf/els/reports/442_Print.cfm?mode=cu...

[1] FCC experimental license rules, section 5.64: http://www.fr.com/files/Uploads/attachments/fcc/FCC_Part%205...

[2] "Mitigation of Orbital Debris", section (III)(A): https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-130A1.p...

There has been an ongoing struggle inside the industry to determine which US agency gets to be the "debris" authority when it comes to licensing. From what I understand, NORAD doesn't want be in licensing. The FCC is a poor fit and is over-reaching. Plus the international community doesn't necessarily want America being the authority on what you can and can't launch.

The real answer here, which the FCC just shoved right to the forefront, is that there should be a single international independent body to sign off on a debris analysis on all items placed in space. But then again, no country wants that because they either want the control for themselves or thrive on the gray area.

For the commercial launch industry, they don't want that either because most of them leave their spent rocket bodies up there (which are basically big rusting tanks with unspent fuel vapors). For the big old space, they don't want it either because they would be forced to admit that they have a fiscal responsibility to operate their satellites until they die and that their active-deorbit plans are bullshit.

What shocks me is that neither Spaceflight nor ISRO checked on the license. This is why you have mass dummies (big hunks of metal that approximate the satellite that can be launched in their place).

On top of that, shame on the CEO of Swarm. You could make the argument that she set trust in the industry back by years. She should pack it up. You don't get to ask for forgiveness instead of permission when you're playing in space. It belongs it everyone.

Until there is such a body, every country is responsible for the objects its citizens put into space according to the Outer Space Treaty. The interesting legal question to me is why it's on the US (where the satellites were built and from which they're being operated) over India (where the satellites were launched from).

(Which question, btw, shows the need for an international regulatory agency like you're describing.)

Because Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty says that the US, not India, is responsible for the activities of a US company launching from India.

> You don't get to ask for forgiveness instead of permission when you're playing in space.

It's been a long-standing ethical concern that the breakaway startups succeed by asking for forgiveness (e.g. ride sharing and room letting). Who is to decide that space is any different? And when the technicality is based on radio-waves, why RF spectrums more sacred than housing laws?

The technicality isn't radio waves. It's object size. FCC rejected Swarms application because it wanted to use satellites smaller than the smallest 1U CubeSat specs. Apparently, tracking for these objects gets much hard the smaller they get, or something like that. But once its up, it's up, and the physical risk cannot be mitigated with an off-switch the way signal interference could, there are simply now 4 quarter-U sized sats too small to track as effectively as standard sats, which risk analysis had shown posed a too-high potential for harm.

I don't get the "international" part. Any country could add it's own regulator and companies wanting to serve the local market would have to abide by it. If you want to serve a global market, you'd have to satisfy them all, including FCC.

Of cause there is little incentive to to create such agencies as long as the FCC is taking care of it well.

It’s not just this. There are a number of things in the airline space that are only tangentially related to spectrum, such as in-flight phone calls over WiFi that have at least touched on FCC. Even though it’s 90 percent about passenger annoyance as opposed to actual communications issues.

I don't think that's a good example. The FCC regulations should only be covering the communication issues and there significant issues, for example cell phones at high altitudes consume spectrum from a wide area of towers.

It's the FAA regulations that cover passenger issues.

It's pretty clear though that the FCC is basing its decision at least as much on the fact that lots of people hate the idea of calls in planes as on any technical issues. (I fully support banning voice calls by the way. It's not clear that the FCC that authority here though except in a narrow domain.)


The FCC's rejection letter PDF is only concerned with the physical dimensions of the satellite and mentions nothing whatsoever about the RF characteristics of the satellite or their test earth stations.

Which is exactly my point. The FCC rejected Swarm's experimental license application in December 2017 (thus the letter) because they were worried about orbital debris. They should be focusing on the RF characteristics of the satellite and earth stations instead.

Yes, I agree... I mean I don't disagree with the principle that corporations should be spanked for intentionally launching orbital debris that is below the tracking size threshold. 1U cubesat is not so difficult. I am just not sure that the FCC is the appropriate agency to be regulating orbital two line elements, minimum satellite bus size, etc.

The USAF/NORAD operates the US feds' space tracking functionality but is not set up to regulate things, they provide Secret and TS level data to agencies like the NRO and other parts of the USAF (for missions like the X-37), but I don't think the USAF spacetrack agency has any regulatory authority. Probably it should have such, if this sort of thing continues.

IMO the FAA should be the responsible regulatory agency.

No where is a perfect fit. I think FCC gets it because damn near everything going up is going to want to transmit back down as a critical part of the mission so giving the full authority over safety to a single agency to issue one license makes sense. The FAA does have authority over launches but seems like it's just when it's moving through the atmosphere.

Is the fcc decisions beyond a court ? I mean if the fcc or any government agency exceeds its authority the issue can be challenged in a court. Companies launching satellites probably have a lawyer or 2 and can pay a bit to keep their core business functioning

I disagree. I very much feel they should be focusing on both, especially if their satellite could damage and interfere with the satellites of others.

Why do you think the FCC should be involved in this, though?

Do you think the FCC should be able to make safety regulations for, say, airplanes or sailboats?

If said sailboats would endanger radio transmitters of international importance, why not?

Because they're the ones tasked with it. The FCC didn't randomly choose to deny these people the permit; they were given that mandate.

So if Swarm set up their station on an atoll in the Pacific, the FCC would have no jurisdiction? It's really easy to move a transmitter.

I think that's correct (this comment does not constitute legal advice, etc.). However, international telecommunications treaties would still apply and they'd have to deal with export restrictions (ITAR and EAR).

Could they operate it from a ship, which could be registered anywhere?

Could someone explain to the uninformed why operating an unauthorized experimental radio station should be illegal?

The skeptic in me says it is so that the government can grant monopolies to people like Lyndon Johnson who own radio stations so that they can become very wealthy. Then when they become President (or hold other positions of power), they scratch the backs that scratched theirs.

There's only a limited amount of bandwidth available, and if you transmit at a certain frequency, you interfere with other people operating near that frequency. It's like jamming their signals. If too many people do this, the entire radio spectrum becomes useless for everyone.

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