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FCC fines company $900K for unapproved satellite launch

The FCC has issued a $900K fine against the smallsat company Swarm for its unlicensed launch in January on an Indian rocket of four smallsats.

Along with paying a massive fine, Swarm has agreed to submit reports to the FCC before every satellite launch it wants to make for the next three years. These reports must include all of the details about the launch vehicle that will carry the satellites, the time and location of the launch, and contact information for who is coordinating the launch. And Swarm has to do this a lot, too. Reports need to be submitted within five days of Swarm purchasing a ride on a rocket, or within 45 days of the flight. Additional reports must be submitted when the satellites are shipped to be integrated on the rocket, whenever the satellites are actually integrated, and around the time the launch is supposed to take place.

Within the next two months, Swarm must also establish its own “compliance plan” and appoint a compliance officer to make sure the company adheres to all of the regulations surrounding a satellite launch. This entails crafting clearly defined procedures and checklists that every employee must follow to confirm that the FCC’s licensing requirements are being met.

I have very mixed feelings about this. While it is important that the FCC make sure U.S. satellites are compliant with the Outer Space Treaty and that satellite makers and launch companies do not do things willy-nilly without some common sense coordination, this settlement, with its complex bureaucratic paperwork requirements, strikes me more as a power play by the agency to tell everyone that the government will rule here.

At the same time, I can understand the FCC’s concern. We are about to see a smallsat revolution, with tens of thousands of these satellites being built and launched by numerous big and small companies. The FCC wanted it very clear to everyone the need to get that licensing done properly. This settlement makes that clear.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • Joe

    More importantly, this little fiasco has harmed a lot of small sat developers such as myself. I now have more paperwork and more questioning on everything I do. Sometimes the ask forgiveness instead of permission does a lot more harm than people realize.

    Despite the new troubles, I will soldier on and get my PocketQube launched.

  • Col Beausabre

    To me this nonsensical and it illustrates the confusion that seems to exist within the US government regarding commercial space. Why is the FCC regulating launches and not the FAA ? Everything else from ultra-lights, hand launched drones and model rockets to the largest airliners and high performance aircraft are its mission, so why not launches and orbits? Have the FCC approve the frequencies and signal strengths used, but leave the rest of it to the agency that since the days of the Civil Aeronautics Board has been regulating flight.

  • Edward

    From the article: “The agency found that not only had Swarm launched without a license, but it had also illegally used ground communication stations in Georgia to communicate with the satellites for over a week while the spacecraft were in orbit. Plus, the company had done some unlawful tests with weather balloons and other equipment before the launch. The FCC is responsible for authorizing all of these procedures, but hadn’t approved Swarm to do them.

    It looks to me like the company was violating laws and procedures just so it could do whatever it wanted whenever it wanted without coordinating with anyone else who might be adversely affected. As Joe has pointed out, the fallout is considerable. In breaking laws and procedures in order to try to bypass the bureaucracy, they merely brought more bureaucracy to the law-abiding companies and citizens.

    Admiral Grace Hopper is often misquoted. She said, “if it is a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.” None of the violations that Swarm did were good ideas. The reflective surface that they used on their undersized satellites may be a good idea, but has it been sufficiently tested as a working solution to the size problem? If so, why could they not convince anyone before launch? If it had not been sufficiently tested, launching it wasn’t a good idea at all.

  • wayne

    These alphabet agencies, need to be eliminated, by any means necessary.

    Wheat, Weed, and ObamaCare:
    How the Commerce Clause Made Congress All-Powerful

  • wayne

    Wickard v. Filburn: The Aggregation Principle & Congressional Power
    The Federalist Society
    August, 2018

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