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The Blake Brief: A Guide to ISAM
Curt Blake, Joshua Gruenspecht (partner), Peter Bratton (associate) Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati


On February 16th, 2024, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing a framework to license “space stations” — not ISS-like space stations, but which, for FCC purposes, means any object serving as a transmitter or receiver of communications beyond the Earth’s atmosphere — that conduct in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) activities.

While the FCC has already licensed a handful of private space stations conducting ISAM activities under the current rule regime, the White House’s 2022 ISAM National Strategy (NPRM) specifically called for U.S. domestic regulatory regimes to be updated to facilitate ISAM activities.

The NPRM describes a new FCC approach to space station licensing that accommodates the particular needs of ISAM users and then solicits public comment on that approach.

The need for ISAM-specific processes is growing: according to one estimate, more than 102 companies have undertaken ISAM projects or research, 18 of those have either partially, or fully, operational ISAM capabilities, and 40 expect to be ready within the next five years.

There are three key issues addressed in the ISAM NPRM:

> creating ISAM-specific application processes
> allocating spectrum to ISAM activities
> fees and bonding

1. Creating ISAM-Specific Application Processes
The NPRM proposes the following definition of “ISAM space station”: “A space station that has the primary purpose of conducting in-space servicing, assembly, and/or manufacturing activities used on-orbit, on the surface of celestial bodies, and/or in transit between these regimes.”

The FCC will start by applying its baseline space station licensing procedures to such stations, but then apply special rules to ISAM operators — e.g., by exempting them from certain frequency allocation requirements provided that they demonstrate the ability to engage in spectrum sharing. Recognition of the opportunities for use of shared spectrum in ISAM operations shows welcome flexibility on the FCC’s part.

On the other hand, some of the proposed ISAM-specific procedures may create unexpected burdens. For example, when it comes to U.S. ISAM operators servicing space stations licensed outside the U.S., the paperwork requirements appear to be significant.

The NPRM proposes that ISAM license applicants produce both

a) ITU and UN filing information for any space station they plan to interact with, and
b) a narrative description of any regulatory filings those international space stations are required to make under their local regimes to interact with the U.S. ISAM operator

The FCC claims this approach is necessary in order to satisfy its international coordination obligations. However, awareness of the FCC’s review might create fear of FCC meddling in the affairs of foreign space station operators and cause those operators to seek out foreign ISAM providers, thereby discouraging investment and innovation in the U.S. ISAM sector.

Apart from the obstacle to growth of this critical sub-industry, it is not hard to imagine an emergency servicing or debris removal mission where the target space object cannot be neatly categorized, or where the original operators cannot be persuaded to allow their license’ review by the FCC.

A simpler alternative might be to require attestation from the client that it has interfaced with foreign customers and plans to follow the rules those foreign space stations indicate are required during an ISAM operation. Regardless, one can only hope that waivers will be readily available in the kinds of emergency circumstances described above.

Even so, on the whole, the creation of an ISAM-specific process is certainly a win for the industry. The FCC’s acknowledgement of the new category of approvable services gives participants in this area of the space economy certainty that they’ll be dealt with by the Space Bureau of the FCC in a well- understood manner.

Greater certainty helps to create investment in a category of space services which will be critical to developing a resilient and robust space economy in the longer term, while playing a key role in the battle against the plague of ever- increasing orbital debris in the nearer term.

Of course, a proposed rulemaking is not a final set of rules, and in this first cut, the FCC notes a number of issues of scope and line-drawing. For example, the FCC chose not to offer guidance on interpretation of “primary purpose” in the ISAM definition but did seek comment on whether the definition is too narrow or so broad that it risks creating confusion as to whether more traditional space stations are included.

Additionally, the FCC chose not to propose different licensing rules for different types of ISAM activities, while seeking comment on whether there are different factors of servicing, assembly, or manufacturing activities that necessitate specific rules or a specific framework.

Some may find the category still too broad (e.g., how do you lump re-fueling services in with space manufacturing)? The FCC seems aware that needs will evolve over time, explicitly noting that “ISAM technologies are still nascent, and we view our proposed approach to regulating ISAM space stations as iterative, developing with the capabilities and needs of the industry.”

2. Allocating Spectrum to ISAM Activities
The flipside of the NPRM’s proposal to allow ISAM operators to obtain licenses based on dynamic spectrum usage is that the FCC also has tentatively decided not to allocate a specific band to ISAM use. Instead, the NPRM suggests that “various communication activities in support of ISAM can potentially operate within several existing service allocations.” In other words, ISAM space stations will compete directly with other kinds of space stations for the use of scarce spectrum resources.

Practically speaking, the decision not to set aside frequency for ISAM operators is likely to increase licensing processing time, as it could necessitate polling of operators within a given spectrum allocation, in order to confirm their operations will not be disrupted by the ISAM license grant. While it is true that that ISAM spectrum use is more likely to be intermittent and relatively brief, this should not be grounds for penalizing the valuable potential contributions of ISAM operators. If ISAM activities and servicing are to be treated as true priorities, a logical next step would be reserving some limited amount of spectrum to be shared among ISAM licensees (and enlarged, if and when usage warrants).

3. Fees and Bonding
The NPRM does not propose a fee framework for ISAM applicants that differs from that of traditional space station operators. It does, however, offer a one-year grace period for ISAM space station licensees to either meet their planned milestone requirements before they are required to file a surety bond with the FCC. This is a significantly longer grace period than the 30-day filing requirement for other space station licensees. The FCC describes this extended grace period as a mechanism for fostering the growth of the nascent ISAM industry.1

The extended bond period is an important win for ISAM operators; the FCC’s bonding requirements are expensive commitments in an already expensive sector. Arguably, the FCC could have done more to support ISAM by establishing a special reduced fee schedule for ISAM operators.

However, ISAM operators should not have expected such a step, the FCC addresses fee issues in separate proceedings. as a somewhat less direct, but arguably more impactful move, the FCC could have proposed a bonding requirement for some, or all spacecraft focused on ensuring payment to ISAM operators focused on orbital debris removal. It is no secret that one of the primary goals of the ISAM initiative is to help spur solutions to the orbital debris dilemma.

The Notice of Inquiry that preceded the NPRM specially asked whether an operator bond associated with spacecraft removal would be an appropriate mechanism for ensuring active debris removal. Ultimately, however, the NPRM postponed that discussion, stating “we defer this issue as related to ISAM and debris remediation to a later time when we can consider it more fully.”

Although the issue is certainly complex, the nascent ISAM industry could benefit from a strengthened consensus that those who pollute space and endanger other missions should suffer loss of their bond, with use of its proceeds funding debris removal.

Overall, the NPRM takes some promising first steps, but is only the beginning of trying to strike the right regulatory balance. The FCC’s stated that one of its goals is to lower the regulatory burden involved in licensing ISAM operations and reduce application processing times.

As noted, certain aspects of these proposed rules seem unlikely to facilitate that aim. Still, the explicit focus on ISAM as a distinct group and the partially simplified rules should certainly help to clarify the process for applicants.

If the FCC wishes to move beyond clarifying to actually providing tailwind support for this critical industry, the final rules should consider more significant stimuli such as spectrum allocations, adjusted bond packages, more limited foreign spectrum license review, and other accommodations unique to the needs of space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing.

Link to the FCC Earth Station Licensing Bureau

Curt Blake

Curt Blake, Senior Columnist to SatNews Publishers, is Senior Of Counsel for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He is an attorney and senior executive with more than 25 years of experience leading organizations in high-growth industries — and more than 10 years as the CEO of Spaceflight, Inc.— at the forefront of the New Space revolution.

Curt has extensive expertise in strategic planning, financial analysis, legal strategy, M&A, and space commercialization, with deep knowledge about the unique challenges of New Space growth and the roadmap to success in the that ecosystem.

The views expressed in this article reflect those of the authors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer or the firm’s clients.


1Authorization for an NGSO system must launch 50% of the maximum number of space stations authorized for service, place them in their assigned orbits, and operate them in accordance with the station authorization no later than 6 years after the grant of the authorization. Additionally, the operator must deploy and begin operations with the full system no later than nine years after grant or accept a reduction in its ellites to the number launched and operational at that time. 47 CFR.164, 25.165.