The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday approved SpaceX’s request to fly satellites for its Starlink internet service at a lower orbit – but only under certain conditions.
Company rivals including Amazon, Viasat, Hughes Net, and OneWeb previously criticized SpaceX’s request to fly more satellites at a lower orbit. But they told Insider that the FCC’s conditions address their main concerns.
The approval means that SpaceX can eventually lower 2,814 satellites from 1,100 kilometres to 550 kilometres, although these satellites are not yet in orbit. The company already had permission to operate 1,584 satellites at this lower orbit.
Under the approval conditions, SpaceX must record how many times Starlink satellites come close to colliding with other spacecraft, and report it to the FCC every six months. Elon Musk’s aerospace company also must disclose the number of Starlink satellites that re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
All of these rivals are working to build satellite internet networks from low-Earth orbit satellites, geostationary satellites, or a mix of both. SpaceX currently has more than 1,350 satellites currently in orbit – the most of any of the companies. Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t launched any satellites yet, but plans to have a fleet of 3,236 in total.
Competitors had filed various responses to SpaceX’s request for a modification to its licence. Amazon’s Project Kuiper said in January that the change of satellite position would interfere with their own satellites and “smother competition in the cradle.”
An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s decision was a “positive outcome” because it “places clear conditions on SpaceX.”
The FCC’s conditions “address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the Commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low earth orbit,” the spokesperson said.
Viasat, which plans on putting 288 satellites into lower orbit by 2026, was particularly concerned about the number of satellites that SpaceX was blasting into space.
Launching more satellites could lead to a greater chance of collision, resulting in more space debris, which could be a “doomsday scenario for space,” Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s executive chairman and co-founder, told Insider on April 15.
Viasat was pleased the FCC confirmed Starlink satellites must be “reliable and safe,” John Janka, the company’s chief officer of global regulatory and government affairs, told Insider in a statement on Tuesday.
Viasat was also happy that the FCC recognized the need to monitor collision risk that Starlink’s constellation raised, Janka said.
In the filing, the FCC dismissed Viasat’s concerns about the collision risk of Starlink satellites and wrote “SpaceX’s debris mitigation plan is consistent with the public interest.” Viasat said in its statement that it was disappointed with the FCC on this point.
UK satellite company OneWeb, which has 182 satellites in orbit so far, also previously argued that SpaceX’s licence approval would create interference with other satellites.
OneWeb said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s approval was “a totally different deployment to their original licence,” but it “looks forward to continuing amicable and close in-flight coordination with SpaceX.”
A spokesperson from Hughes, another satellite company that argued against SpaceX’s licence, told Insider the company was still reviewing the FCC order.
On July 1, 1941, New York’s NBC station made history by airing the world’s first television commercial.
With about 4,000 televisions in the region at the time, audience-wise it was not all that different from paying a guy to yell about a product in Times Square. The ad for Bulova watches cost $9 and ran for 10 seconds. But the world changed forever.
A decade year later, in 1954, a similar moment occurred in the annals of television history. The Federal Communications Commission got its first consumer complaints about loud commercials on television.
Needless to say, it’s pretty much all gone downhill since.
The pandemic has forced people to spend more time in front of the television than they have in ages. Simple questions like “Is it just me or are the ads way louder than ‘Jeopardy!’ every night?” provoke evocative answers. Casually asking people if they’ve experienced loud commercials yields one of two general responses: “It’s so annoying!” and “It’s way worse on my streaming TV service.”
If you’re hearing things, you’re not alone: the four-month period from November 2020 to February 2021 saw FCC complaints of loud commercials up 140% compared to the same period a year ago, more than double the volume of complaints.
There is a law on the books – the CALM Act, passed in 2011 – that is supposed to rein in loud commercials. But the FCC hasn’t done any enforcement on it in the better part of a decade.
Most significantly of all, for the people angry about explosively loud ads on streaming, there’s absolutely nothing the FCC can do about that even if they were enforcing it. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear there’s any way to do anything about that even through Congress.
The CALM Act is supposed to regulate loud commercials but the FCC hasn’t enforced it
It cascaded through the legislature, passing the Senate unanimously and the House in a voice vote before then-President Barack Obama signed it. Eshoo remarked at the time it was the most popular piece of legislation she had ever introduced in Congress.
The CALM act is actually fairly simple; it doesn’t say “commercials must be this loud” and it doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of how to measure that or enforce it or what consequences shall befall an operator who violates it. It’s fairly clever: all it actually says is that broadcasters and cable operators have to abide by the A/85 standard approved by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, and that the FCC has to enforce that.
A/85 is essentially an intricate, 72-page technical document that gets extremely specific about how things should sound. It’s not written for most of us to understand. But it does set acceptable bounds for the soundscape of television.
The experts wrote A/85, and Congress passed a law that said A/85 is mandatory, so Congress doesn’t have to learn about audio and the problem gets solved.
It’s a smart approach, because Congress is home to lawyers, doctors, activists, and people with all manner of expertise, but conspicuously no audio engineers, and the Advanced Television Systems Committee is understandably full of them. Congress took a standard that industry professionals had approved, and simply started requiring it.
A/85 required the average loudness of a commercial should be about as loud as the dialnorm, or the average dialogue level of a show. Because commercials can appear on your screen through a number of different ways from a number of different sources – such as being inserted by the local station or television provider, or embedded with the content itself – a standard for the whole system, top to bottom, at least formalizes the acceptable volume.
After an initial surge in complaints about loud commercials to the FCC following the Act’s passage and implementation, the bill largely had the desired impact, with complaints leveling off after a few years.
“FCC data I’ve seen shows consistent annual decreases in complaints since 2014,” Eshoo told Insider. “If that trend has changed, investigations are warranted.”
The past several months show complaints on the rise, according to an Insider analysis of the FCC database of complaints. Should the current rate hold, 2021 is poised to be the worst year since the initial rollout.
All that said, on a practical level, the CALM Act is not enforced.
There is no pipe exiting a cable company that says “out” and there is no meter on that imaginary pipe that says “too loud.” In reality, large stations and providers were supposed to spot-check once a year during the first two years of the rollout, doing 24 hours of monitoring over a seven-day period. If they found a problem, they were supposed to tell the FCC. You will be positively shocked to discover that only two small stations asked for a waiver while they fixed issues they found.
And since then? The FCC doesn’t audit stations. The agency will only investigate in the event that a pattern or trend emerges based on consumer-submitted complaints. From 2012 to 2019, consumers submitted 47,909 complaints to the FCC about loud commercials.
“In 2013, the Enforcement Bureau sent letters of inquiry to two separate companies addressing potential violations of the CALM Act and associated regulations,” an FCC spokesperson told Insider in an email, drawing from a 2020 letter from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai responding to questions from Eshoo. “There were no violations found in either case and there are no public documents associated with these letters of inquiry. Since the 2013 letters of inquiry, the Enforcement Bureau analyses have not uncovered any pattern or trend of complaints supporting further inquiry.”
That is to say, the sum total of FCC enforcement on disproportionately loud commercials in the decade since the CALM Act has amounted to two letters – and no enforcement.
In 2014, the FCC did update their technical standards to address a clever workaround that some commercials had discovered. Basically, if the average volume of your commercial has to be on par with the average volume of the program, then you could hypothetically craft a 30-second advertisement that is 15 seconds of silence and 15 seconds at twice the volume of the program and technically not violate the standard, as you’ve technically maintained the average. The 2014 update discouraged this.
Despite thousands of complaints per year, the FCC has not discerned the kind of “pattern or trend of complaints” to support further inquiry.
The FCC declined to answer Insider’s questions regarding what precisely would qualify as a pattern or trend of complaints, whether the recent rise in complaints would qualify as a pattern or trend, or a question regarding the number of people working on CALM Act enforcement at a given time.
“If CALM Act-related complaints are increasing, the FCC should analyze the complaints to understand what is driving the shift,” Eshoo said. “If an analysis of the complaint data shows a pattern of legitimate complaints against specific companies, the FCC must investigate those companies. If the Commission finds violations through its investigations, it should bring enforcement actions.”
Increased enforcement could stymie the surge in complaints. However, as streaming television rises and cords are cut, more and more Americans are getting their television from services that are not covered by the CALM act, which applies to MVPDs, or multichannel video programming distributors, which is the official legal name for cable providers.
So, why not just pass a CALM Act for streaming?
The government can’t actually regulate streaming services
When Insider asked that question of experts in government, legislature, and the industry, the response was similar to asking “Why not legalize civil unions for leprechauns” or “When will the Federal Aviation Administration crack down on Pogo sticks,” in that it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about what the FCC is.
“The FCC’s subject matter jurisdiction is communication by wire or radio,” said Gigi Sohn, a Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy. “The FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over devices.”
The streaming landscape is vastly different from television. It may look like television, but it’s legally something else entirely, and while the offerings of a virtual over-the-top service may look nearly identical to the offerings of a traditional cable television service, legally it’s completely different, and not under the regulation of the FCC.
Streamers such as Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Youtube TV, FuboTV, Sling TV, and Hulu with Live TV may look aesthetically similar to a cable package, but from the perspective of the FCC, you may as well ask them to regulate your toaster. The FCC simply lacks jurisdiction over streaming services.
One side effect of this lack of jurisdiction is that for loud commercials, the FCC can’t do a thing. And the agency can’t address any of the other anxieties of modern streaming, including local blackouts, delivery issues, billing, usage caps, content exclusivity, bans, or any of the other policies enacted by fiat by the largest media companies on the planet.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, niche virtual streaming services sought classification as MVPDs. The companies – Pluto TV and Sky Angel – wanted the FCC to expand the definition of MVPD to include streamers like them, arguing that they should be under the FCC’s direction. In 2014, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler supported the move and the FCC began considering the shift.
“They determined the benefits that accrue to them justified the FCC oversight,” said Sohn, who was working for Wheeler at the time.
But the move to expand the definition was opposed both by legacy MVPDs, as well as larger streaming companies, such as Amazon, which did not want the FCC encroaching on their business, with the main fear being that any regulation would open the door to further regulation.
Proponents of the change needed three of the five commissioners of the FCC to approve it.
While there is nothing to stop the FCC from adapting a definition of multi-channel video provider that would include the virtual providers, or even streaming services, the result would likely be a massive lawsuit that they would probably lose very badly.
In order for the FCC to have any authority over streamers, Sohn said, Congress would have to pass a law.
“I think this is a huge fight that might happen some day,” she said. “It’ll be a battle royale. Streaming services don’t want to be regulated.”
However, the difficulties that Congress faces in regulating streaming television doesn’t mean erratic commercial volumes on streaming is going to be a problem forever.
The small committee you’ve never heard of that might actually end loud annoying streaming ads
When Congress passed the CALM Act, they passed a law that essentially took an existing audio industry standard and instructed the FCC to take the necessary steps to enforce that standard.
Right this moment, the Audio Engineering Society is designing a new audio standard for streaming television.
David Bialik is a systems engineer and the co-chair of the Audio Engineering Society’s Technical Committee on Broadcast & Online Delivery. If you’ve never heard of them, you’ve definitely heard them. This is the group of audio engineers who design the standards for much of how America’s media diet sounds.
The reason you change the channel and one isn’t materially louder than another, or if you’ve gone to a concert and not seen drastically different sounds between sets – all of that is genuine scientific work agreed upon by pros and at times set as standards.
And those standards may be the ticket to a better experience on web-based streaming.
The process by which an idea becomes a standard is not entirely like the serpentine process by which a bill becomes law. Think of it as a version of the Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just A Bill,” but instead of a bill it’s an intricate technical document, instead of congressional committees it’s a technical committee of audio experts, and in lieu of congressional votes it’s approval by the broader audio committee.
The equivalent of the presidential signature that makes it “law” is a vote that elevates the technical document to an official Standard, a move that in A/85’s case was carried out by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, but other standards go different routes.
Right now, the Audio Engineering Society’s technical committee is working on a new technical document that would address loudness on streaming services. And if it works, the issues of variable volumes on digital television could be solved without Congress at all.
“My hope is to see this released within the next 4 to 5 months,” Bialik told Insider. The gist is that programming material will come with loudness controls within metadata, indicating precisely how loud programming should be. They’re now getting comments from the 90 members of the committee. “It is our hope that our work gets elevated to a standard.”
“This isn’t something we’re taking lightly,” he added. The bigger players have good reason to play ball, namely because a unified consumer sound experience is good for the field as a whole.
“You want your content to be the same level as everyone else’s, on a level playing field,” Bialik said. A user touching the volume knob is bad. “When you invite the audience to touch the volume knob, you invite them to touch other knobs, too.”
Despite the many issues, Congress has been mulling an update to the 1992 Cable Act, which was the last major overhaul of the cable system. Needless to say, in the intervening years the landscape of television has changed somewhat, and to that end Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and Democratic Rep. Eshoo jointly introduced the Modern Television Act of 2019.
There’s little consumers can do outside of sending in official FCC complaints, or even just complaining about it on social media. In fact, those techniques are genuinely effective.
“I periodically hear from constituents about the annoyance of loud ads on streaming services and that worries me. I’ve also seen complaints on social media,” Eshoo said.
“Right now, I’m examining how large of a problem it is. If there is a real problem that we see beyond anecdotal reports, I will certainly consider legislation to address it.”
A $3.2 billion federal initiative to subsidize high-speed internet for low-income households during the pandemic has just been approved, and applications could open within two months.
The program will offer eligible households discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband service, and up to $75 a month if the household is on Tribal lands, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said.
The program will also provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households.
The program is the biggest one yet to help households nationwide afford broadband service, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Thursday, after it voted unanimously to formally adopt the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s acting chairwoman, said she expects the program to be open to eligible households within 60 days.
To be eligible, at least one member of the household must meet one of the following criteria:
Qualify for the FCC’s Lifeline program, including those that are on Medicaid or accept SNAP benefits.
Receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch or breakfast program.
Have lost jobs and seen their income reduced in the last year.
Have received a Federal Pell Grant.
Meet the eligibility criteria for a participating broadband providers’ existing low-income or COVID-19 program.
“It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work,” Rosenworcel said. “It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries.”
During the pandemic, many jobs, schools, and healthcare services have moved online – widening the digital divide. This is especially problematic in rural areas, which are more likely to both have limited broadband access and be located further from amenities.
The pandemic has led to what’s been dubbed the “homework gap,” where students without reliable home internet have struggled to keep up with remote learning.
The Department of Justice has dropped its legal challenge to California’s net-neutrality rules, the agency said in a court filing on Monday.
The move clears a major hurdle that had prevented the state’s rules from going into effect, and represents a significant departure from the Trump administration’s approach to internet policy.
After the Trump-led Federal Communications Commission voted in 2017 to repeal widely popular Obama-era net-neutrality protections at the federal level, California lawmakers passed a law the following year that aimed to restore some of those protections within its own borders.
The Biden administration’s decision to abandon the fight against net neutrality, which comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s nomination of acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel, signals it may take a tougher approach to companies that provide Americans with internet access.
“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has withdrawn this lawsuit,” Rosenworcel said in a press release.
“When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its net-neutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws. By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land,” she said.
Public opinion polls have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans – including both Republicans and Democrats – support net neutrality, a policy that prevents internet providers like AT&T and Comcast from “throttling” customers’ internet speeds or forcing certain websites to pay more for “fast lanes.”
Despite industry arguments that deregulation promotes innovation and cost savings that benefit consumers, the US recently fell out of the top 10 countries for internet speeds globally, according to a report from DecisionData.org, and Americans still pay far more for that service.
Slaughter began her term at the FTC in May 2018, after being nominated by President Donald Trump. Rosenworcel was first nominated to serve on the FCC by President Barack Obama in 2012, and is the longest-serving Democratic commissioner at the agency.
The appointments signal that Biden’s administration will likely continue to get tougher on regulating tech and telecom companies, building on the Trump administration’s mix of increasing antitrust enforcement, attempts to roll back Section 230’s legal protections for internet companies, and laissez-faire approach to telecom regulations.
Slaughter has supported the FTC’s increasingly hard line on antitrust issues as well as privacy, but she has also argued the agency should have taken action earlier and issued harsher penalties more likely to deter companies from future law-breaking, including holding executives personally liable for their companies’ privacy violations.
Slaugher has also said that the FTC’s enforcement efforts should be “anti-racist” through ensuring markets aren’t racially discriminatory and protecting consumers from algorithmic bias.
Rosenworcel’s appointment to the FCC, however, marks an even greater departure from her predecessor, the outgoing Chairman Ajit Pai.
Rosenworcel has pushed for the FCC to use its authority and resources to expand internet access, particularly to students whose lack of home internet has prevented them from keeping up in school while participating in remote learning during the pandemic – the so-called “homework gap.” She has also voiced support for net neutrality in the past, and will likely face pressure to reinstate the policy.
Slaughter and Rosenworcel will likely play a key role in any efforts to modify Section 230, which some Democrats say lets tech companies off the hook for not doing enough to disincentivize hate speech, harassment, and violence on their platforms.
The appointments aren’t final, as Biden will still need to decide whether to nominate Slaughter and Rosenworcel as permanent chairs. They will also likely face delays implementing their more ambitious plans until Biden nominates additional commissioners to break the current 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans at both agencies.
Both the FTC and FCC are led by as many as five commissioners, appointed by the president, and neither is allowed to have more than three members of one party. Biden’s appointments will need to be confirmed by the Senate, a likely prospect as Vice President Kamala Harris could break any tie between the evenly divided upper chamber.