Good Things in Small Packages

With 2019 having drawn to a close, it is timely to look back to identify those developments of greatest significance for the satellite industry for past year. 2019 was an eventful year, and picking the most significant developments can be daunting. Obvious choices include the continued proliferation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite players, the FCC’s C-band proceeding, and the results of WRC-19. However, there is another development from the past year, which I suspect may have fallen below the radar scope of many industry observers and, in my humble opinion, could be the most significant of all. I am referring to the FCC’s decision in November to designate Hughes Network Systems as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) for purposes of providing telecommunications service in eligible high-cost areas within the state of New York.

A detailed description of that decision represents quite a mouthful, heavily steeped in FCC and regulatory jargon, and I will pass on doing so here. But stripping away the fancy verbiage, it really means that the FCC has opened the door to again treating the delivery of telecommunications services via satellite as being on equal footing with other service providers in instances in which the FCC is attempting to address critical telecommunications needs. The transcendent significance of this development is directly related to the biggest hurdle facing the satellite industry for many years – establishing (or re-establishing) its legitimacy as an acceptable provider of critical telecommunications services. Or as Aretha Franklin put it more succinctly – R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

This has been a struggle in our industry for some time. It can be attributed in part to the fact that the incredible impact that the satellite industry has had on our lives and the world is taken for granted, aided by the ubiquity of the internet. Yet it is not that long ago that historic events such as man walking on the moon in 1969, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989 were brought to the world “live via satellite.” The notion that the whole world was watching, which may have played an integral factor in many of those events, is integral to the legacy of satellite technology and the impact it has had on world events and on our day-to-day lives.

Yet even in its heyday, kudos for satellite technology were frequently tempered by blame for whatever went wrong. I cannot count the number of times that I heard news anchors blithely blame any transmission difficulties on the satellite whenever there was a reception problem.

However, the real downward spiral in respectability began in earnest in the early 1990s, with the emergence of fiber optic cable as a competitive alternative, where speed (measured in milliseconds) seemed to overtake coverage and availability as the primary metric of successful communications.

Since then, the satellite industry has been trapped somewhere between the disfavored stepchild and the Rodney Dangerfield of telecommunications services, struggling for respectability for the past quarter century. The slights are manifested in a variety of ways, ranging from the extraordinarily backhanded treatment afforded by the FCC in the seminal National Broadband Plan it formulated in 2010, to the invocation of latency as a perennial disqualifier for satellite-based services in a variety of contexts where government financial assistance to promote development are made available in support of other technologies, but where satellites have been excluded as unsuitable or otherwise ineligible.

This disdain for the importance of satellites has even surfaced in a fashion in the FCC’s ongoing C-band proceeding, where no reluctance or remorse has been shown when it comes to poaching critical C-band capacity in favor of 5G.

It is for all of these reasons why the FCC’s decision to recognize Hughes as an ECT is such a major accomplishment. The only negative is the amount of time and effort required on the part of Hughes to achieve this outcome, for what otherwise should have been a no brainer. That notwithstanding, it signifies that satellite-delivered telecommunications services can be seen, if not fully on parity, at least as competing in the same ballpark as terrestrial fiber or wireless-based services.

To make this revelation even sweeter, it was followed by a speech given by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai a few days later before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in which he extolled the value and virtues of satellite services and the important role that they can play in the rollout of the next generation of integrated broadband services. While a portion of his endorsement focused on services that would be provided by LEO satellites (indirectly rearing that dreaded latency issue again), recognition is still recognition, and perhaps may further portend better days to come at the FCC. VS

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