The satellite and space industry, along with the rest of the country, is desperately trying to figure out what the Trump presidency will mean for it. While my credentials as a fortune teller may be suspect at best, I will make an effort to try to make some sense of it, or minimally identify the competing considerations that are in play as they relate to three key indicators more broadly affecting satellite and space enterprises — vision, finance and regulation.
The Vision Thing
If there is one term that more than anything captures the heart and soul of the satellite and space sectors, that term would be visionary. Our entire industry is grounded in and driven by visionaries who imagine the impossible and then make it happen, whether it is the delivery of multichannel video content from space or putting a man on the moon or Mars. What then is the most likely Trump vision as it relates to space-based enterprises? Certainly, if one is looking at it from the perspective of how America can be made great again, with his allusions to past accomplishments that may have fallen by the wayside, clearly space-based enterprises should be at the forefront of the Trumpian vision. Recapturing that momentum would then certainly be a positive, tangible metric for making America great again.
The record to date, however, provides little that one can actually glean from his statements and priorities as to the future role he foresees for space-based enterprises. His stated commitment to massive infrastructure reconstruction is potentially telling, but that to date has been totally terrestrially oriented. There is nothing coming close, for example, to the JFK commitment at the beginning of his presidential term for the United States to put man on the moon by the end of the decade. Moreover, once certain things are set as priorities, the inevitable effect of this is to deprioritize other things. As such, it is still anyone’s guess as to where space stands or is even at all a part of the Trumpian vision thing or not.
The Finance Thing
As those in the satellite sector well know, one of the key financial enablers of the past several years has been the increasingly prominent role played by export credit agencies, and in particular by U.S. Ex-Im Bank in this country. However, over the past several months, the activity of U.S. Ex-Im Bank in the satellite sector has come to a screeching halt, and the future of that organization has gotten embroiled in the controversy as to whether it furthers the national interest by supporting U.S. industry or merely stands as Exhibit A for the alleged evils of crony capitalism. Here, the tea leaves on Trump’s part are confusing at best.
Clearly, a considerable portion of Trump’s support and appeal comes from those who are dead set against any future for Ex-Im Bank, having clearly drunk the crony capitalism Kool-Aid full bore. Indeed, of the names that had been floated as possible candidates for Secretary of the Treasury under a Trump administration, there was at least one, if not more, that would have inevitably spelled the quick death for Ex-Im. Fortunately in that regard, Trump did go a different direction, and one suspects that Steve Mnunchin will be less captive to the crony capitalism mantra that others might have been. Also, to the extent that the Trump legacy is predicated on keeping jobs in America, strong export credit agency support for American high tech business enterprises, such as satellite manufacturing, would seem to be a no brainer. This is certainly an area where there is at least a glimmer of hope that Trump’s entrepreneurial tendencies will overcome any fealty he may owe to Tea Party ideology.
The Regulatory Thing
This is the area of perhaps the greatest unpredictability in discerning the impact of a Trumpian presidency. Putting aside his apparent hostility to the AT&T/Time Warner deal, which affects the satellite industry to the extent that AT&T now owns DirecTV, there is no reason to believe that regulation of the satellite industry would even be a small blimp on his anti-regulatory radarscope. This, however, does not necessarily mean that the regulatory landscape will not be affected by an expected onslaught to be directed at the FCC’s regulatory mandate.
The problem here may be more in the nature of unexpected fallout. While the notion of the value of “disruptive technologies” has become the darling of the tech world in a commercial setting, that same type of disruption, when applied to the regulatory process, is never a pretty sight, breeding uncertainty that is not only disruptive but potentially destructive as well. And while most aspects of satellite regulation in 2017 can be seen to be reasonably straightforward and noncontroversial, there is at least one significant area of current regulatory activity that is still in the developmental stage, which concerns exactly how and on what terms the FCC will provide regulatory oversight of the authorization and operation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) super-constellations. Development of that regulatory framework, on a timely and workable basis, is of critical importance to the future success of the industry. However, should that regulatory activity get caught up in the turmoil at the FCC occurring on other fronts, the most likely result will be further delay and uncertainty, both of which can be fatal for this innovative but nascent satellite technology. VS