Over the past several years, including most recently at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15), the satellite industry has had a run of remarkable success in protecting its spectrum “turf” from encroachment by the mobile/cellular industry. These victories have not come easily, however, having required considerable time and effort on the part of dedicated satellite industry professionals accompanied by the expenditure of considerable funds (with the same being true regarding the efforts on the part of the mobile/cellular industry in opposition). And if the current forecasts are to be believed, there is every expectation that the mobile/cellular industry will renew their efforts in an even stronger, more organized and focused way in advance of WRC-19 and WRC-23.
At the core of the battleground is the incredible value of spectrum, denominated by its scarcity. But the inconvenient truth facing the satellite industry in this war of attrition is that, so long as you keep winning the skirmishes, all is fine, but lose just once and the game is over.
Nor is such a scorched Earth approach without its drawbacks. Perhaps the clearest example is the stinging rebuke offered by U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler in his remarks at the Annual Satellite Leadership Dinner in Washington, D.C. this past March. Then, he pilloried the satellite industry for its short sightedness in seeking to block the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) “from even studying sharing at 28 GHz at the recent WRC in Geneva.” Notwithstanding my status as a perennial cheerleader for the satellite industry, I firmly believe there is more than a grain of truth in what Chairman Wheeler had to say.
The satellite industry’s core difficulty, which admittedly is not unique to it but shared throughout today’s commercial world, is a fundamental aversion to taking the long view. Attention is invariably focused on the short term, the next quarter’s results, at the expense of the long term. But very clearly this shortsightedness is neither healthy for the industry nor for the broader public interest. It is important to remember that the satellite industry came into being to serve the public interest, so there is an interesting irony here.
"The satellite industry’s core difficulty is a fundamental aversion to taking the long view."
In the interests of full disclosure, I too had been somewhat complacent in this regard, until some frank discussions on this subject with Jose Toscano, the director general of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO), raised my consciousness. Indeed, as the head of an organization that by its very purpose is committed to taking the long view, his particular perspective should come as no surprise.
So, does the satellite industry as a whole have the ability to rise to this challenge? To be sure, perhaps prompted by Wheeler’s remarks, there have been at least some tepid attempts at reaching out to the mobile/cellular industry, at least with respect to the 28 GHz sharing question, including a proposal jointly put forward by AT&T and EchoStar. But even that has drawn criticism from other parts of the satellite industry as moving too far too fast.
I firmly believe the time has come to eschew continuing pursuit of this rear-guard defense, and to start thinking outside of the box by focusing on the true long-term objectives that everyone has an interest in achieving, thus serving the broader public interest. In particular, the time has come for ongoing, serious and committed dialogue with the mobile/cellular industry to forge a long-term strategy that serves the interests of both industries and supplants the time, effort and money that would otherwise be expended to continuing these battles of attrition ad infinitum.
In this regard, I see no reason why everything should not be on the table on both sides of the conversation. This begins with exploration of the methods by which spectrum sharing of certain bands can be achieved in a way that maximizes the benefits to the ultimate end users, including the significant portions of the world’s population that are underserved today by broadband connectivity. Further, it goes beyond that to include consideration of scenarios in which the satellite industry could potentially consider relinquishing particular spectrum allocations over time to the mobile/cellular industry. This would theoretically be pursuant to mutually agreed and appropriately structured transitional arrangements, accompanied by significant financial commitments on the part of the mobile/cellular industry to underwrite the costs of such a transition, as well as a meaningful and substantial financial commitment to support necessary infrastructure development in the underserved parts of the world.
To achieve this, however, requires committed vision, courage and leadership at the very top of the industry, and the wherewithal to eschew short-term objectives for the greater public good. In other words, what is sorely needed are a few good men and women to step forward and meet this challenge. My open question to the industry is: are they any takers? VS