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FCC moves to form Space Bureau as its role in regulating orbit intensifies

The Federal Communications Commission regulates lots of industries and practices relating to telecommunications and the internet, but it is now cementing its role as a space regulator by voting to create a brand-new bureau specializing in the topic.

Bureaus are the divisions of the agency that handle different areas of industry: media, wireless, consumer, and so on, as well as enforcement and the like. They're full of specialists who research and produce the rules and advisories promulgated by the FCC.

The newly minted Space Bureau will handle all business relating to satellite approval, orbital communications, and space debris, among other things. These are things the agency was already doing, but now they'll have a new, more effective organization to do them in.

"The satellite industry is growing at a record pace, but here on the ground our regulatory frameworks for licensing have not kept up. We’re working to change that," said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement.

The current International Bureau is being cannibalized to form it, but it sounds like more of an upgrade than a dissolution. Although the FCC voted unanimously today to form the new bureau, it will need additional approvals from Congress and some other formalities before it is final, but you can bet that they're already shifting the desks around and powering up new chat channels.

Here's how the FCC put it in their order:

Under this reorganization, the Space Bureau will promote a competitive and innovative global telecommunications marketplace via space services. The Space Bureau will do so by undertaking policy analysis and rulemakings as well as authorizing satellite systems for the purpose of facilitating the deployment of satellite services, streamlining regulatory processes and maximizing flexibility for operators to meet customer needs, and fostering the efficient use of spectrum and orbital resources. The Space Bureau will also serve as a focal point for coordination with other U.S. government agencies on matters of space policy and governance, and will support the Office of International Affairs for meetings with other countries, international organizations and foreign government officials that involve space policy matters.

It may seem a little strange that the FCC regulates space, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The agency is in charge of regulating transmissions, especially interstate ones (which makes it the natural regulator for internet stuff), and satellites transmit a lot of data. In fact, with hundreds or thousands more going up every year, they're probably one of the fastest-growing sources of data transmissions.

While the likes of the FAA, NASA, and the Pentagon have their fingers in this pie as well, when it comes to making sure orbital platforms don't interfere with each other or surface communications, the FCC is the right tool for the job. (Though how far that job extends is an open question.)

But until recently, space was a pretty small niche in their work. Now they're fielding satellite approval applications from hundreds of companies and research centers, administrating spectrum for networks of Comsats thousands strong, and trying to make sure all this wireless traffic doesn't drown out anything important. Then there's the whole space debris thing, which is another story. But also important.

At any rate, it makes perfect sense for the FCC to build out a space-focused bureau that, as part of its work, negotiates and cooperates with other countries — the old International Bureau's job. We'll hear more about it as the official milestones are hit in the months to come.