The words I wrote some eighteen months ago ring as true today as they did then. The satellite and space industry, along with the rest of the telecommunications industry, is desperately trying to figure out what the Trump presidency will mean for it. So much and so little has happened over the past eighteen months that predictions about anything related to this administration are fraught with incredible difficulties. Having said that, let me try again to make sense of where we are and where we may be going, taking account of the experience of the past eighteen months as viewed from the three vantage points that I had previously laid out — vision, finance, and regulation.
The Vision Thing
On the vision front, the Trump Administration has actually made some significant strides. Calling space the next great American frontier, President Trump has reconstituted the National Space Council under the leadership of Vice President Pence and, based on their recommendations, has issued two White House space policy directives, one in December of last year and the second one in April of this year. The thrust of both is fully consistent with the general deregulatory policy orientation of the Trump Administration, i.e., to reduce the complexity of regulation associated with authorization of space based activities and to encourage a more prominent role for the private sector. And certainly, given the ever increasing visibility of private sector visionaries in driving U.S. space exploration activities, there is a high degree of concordance between the Trump vision and marketplace realities.
The directives also seem intended to reorient near-term space targets away from asteroid exploration back to the moon, although how that will align with Elon Musk’s targeting of Mars as the next major space exploration destination remains to be seen. Moreover, the directives have yet to crystalize many actual reforms, so it remains unclear what these reforms will be and what transformative effect, if any, they will have. Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, what has yet to materialize is any recognition of the extent to which space-related policy requires a high degree of international cooperation. In this regard, the two steps back and one step forward approach to trade-related issues that the Trump Administration has pursued to date does not portend well in terms of promoting the degree of international cooperation that space-based activities may require for the future.
The Finance Thing
The U.S. satellite industry continues to suffer on a day-to-day basis from the disappearance of the U.S. Export-Import (EXIM) Bank as a financing source in the satellite and launch fields. While the Trump Administration has finally attempted to try to fill the board vacancies at EXIM, which is a necessary prerequisite to EXIM’s resumption of any credible role in satellite financing, the disapproving reception that the proposed nominee to head the Bank received in the Senate was clearly a step backward. While at least one of the other board nominees has impressive satellite credentials, the nominations appear to be stalled in the Senate without any great sense of urgency for action to move them forward. Without a properly-constituted EXIM Board, that is of little consolation to the industry. And while the rampant antipathy in some quarters in Congress to export credit financing of any form appears to have diminished, at least somewhat, there is certainly no committed, reinvigorated passion for the value or importance of export credit financing generally or for the satellite industry, more specifically.
The Regulatory Thing
The Trump antipathy to regulation generally is a given, although for the satellite industry itself, that is probably neither a major plus nor a serious detriment. Certainly, with respect to moving forward with the licensing of the mega-Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems, the International Bureau’s Satellite Division has made some real headway, although whether this is more properly cast as a Trump Administration success story, or simply dedicated efforts by highly motivated civil servants, remains an open question. But where the industry will have greater concerns is the continuing debate before the Federation Communications Commission (FCC) about 5G and its ravenous desires for spectrum currently allocated for satellite usage, and it is difficult to get a read on how a Trump agenda will affect the outcome of that debate — more on that in a subsequent column. That one issue notwithstanding, the ultimate concern here continues to be the uncertain fallout arising from extended benign neglect of satellite issues altogether, as the regulatory forces continue their dalliance with other priorities, including the death knell of net neutrality or further relaxation of rules relating to media mergers — except of course for the AT&T and Time Warner proposed merger, which does impact the satellite industry at least indirectly, given AT&T’s acquisition of DirectTV.
So where we stand today is not much different from where we have stood for the past eighteen months, trapped somewhere in time between Sysiphus and Godot. VS