The largely obscure issue of access to electromagnetic spectrum is finally is getting high-level attention, says the head of a trade group representing the satellite industry that supports everything from 5G wireless and broadband communications to navigation and video services.
But Tom Stroup, the president of the Satellite Industries Association, hopes the White House National Space Council can do even more.
“They’ve moved more quickly than I actually would have expected government to move given some of the major issues they’re undertaking, but we’re by no means where we need to be,” he said.
Stroup commends the body headed by Vice President Mike Pence for acting quickly on presidential directives that address top issues for Stroup’s dozens of member companies, including speeding up licensing and slashing regulations.
But he’d like to see the space council put even more emphasis into coordinating the government’s activities on managing radio waves – a process he said is currently disjointed but is nevertheless crucial to the growth of his industry and sustaining satellite communications systems, particularly those used for emergency response.
The Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration manage spectrum for the private sector and federal government, respectively. They issue licenses to companies or agencies granting them use of a specific portion of the spectrum, either exclusively or to share with others.
The rapid advancement of technology is creating a “spectrum crunch” where demand for spectrum will soon be greater than the resources available. At the heart of the problem is the rise of data usage on smartphones: an iPhone, for example, uses 24 times more spectrum than a traditional cell phone.
Stroup also spoke about the growth of small satellites, what he sees as the biggest misconceptions about the satellite industry, and the association’s efforts on Capitol Hill.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Who are your members?
Our members are satellite operators, manufacturers, launch companies and ground equipment suppliers, as well as service suppliers to the industry. So it’s very broad representation of the commercial U.S. satellite industry. We do get involved in some international issues because the industry is global by nature, but for the most part we’re focused on efforts in the United States.
Has your membership grown in recent years?
It has. Last year, we had a 25 percent growth in our membership. At the same time, there’s consolidation taking place within the industry, so sometimes I think we take two steps forward and one step back in terms of numbers of members.
What are the biggest issues you hear from members?
The issues that we hear from our members most consistently relate to access to spectrum. There are a variety of proceedings that are taking place at the FCC and have over the past couple years. We have the World Radio Conference that’s coming up in 2019 and another one in 2023. So there’s a lot of effort underway with respect to that.
Certainly there are some efforts on the Hill relating to spectrum as well as broadband that are important to us. The role of satellites in 5G is also an important issue and overlaps with the spectrum issue. And then of course sustainability in space is an important issue to the industry and the efforts of the National Space Council have helped accelerate the discussion of these issues and helped address some of the jurisdictional issues.
How would you like to see the National Space Council address spectrum challenges?
We have seen them stress the importance of spectrum to the space industry and I think that’s been a very important step. Helping to coordinate the activities of the U.S. government as it relates to spectrum at the upcoming [World Radio Conference] so we are putting forth a consistent position that takes into consideration the needs of the space industry is an area that I’d especially like them to focus.
So you don’t see it being a coordinated, government-wide effort now.
That’s correct. I think they seek to do that, but in some of the working groups there seems to be a disconnect between space policy and the role we play in 5G services and the spectrum that will be made available for 5G services and the need for harmonization throughout the world.
Have you seen a difference in your industry since President Trump took office?
The decision to address the licensing process [and] the approval process for Earth observation satellites is a good example of a change that’s taken place. The decrease in time that it’s taken for the authorization is an important, positive step.
Many of the other initiatives are still in the first stages, so the next step is implementation as opposed to policy. They’ve moved more quickly than I actually would have expected government to move given some of the major issues they’re undertaking, but we’re by no means where we need to be.
What should the National Space Council be focusing on more?
The space policy directives have really addressed many of the most important things, so the regulatory reform, the licensing process, the sustainability of space, the importance of spectrum to the space industry overall. We’re very pleased with the policy directives at this point.
Certainly the reformulation of the National Space Council is a good example of a step forward, because the level of attention has been heightened. We’ve had several interactions with [National Space Council Executive Secretary] Scott Pace as well as [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross and his staff, so I think the fact that we’ve got some issues before the Commerce Department and that they are interested in those issues at that level is an important improvement.
The secretary of commerce spoke at a [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] spectrum symposium, and that’s not the level of attention that spectrum issues usually receive in Washington. That’s a very important recognition of how this administration views the space industry.
Are your Capitol Hill efforts ramping up?
When I first joined SIA almost four years ago, the first year we didn’t have a lot of issues before Congress. We certainly had an ongoing effort to provide information on the industry because of the continuous turnover among various staffs.
But in the last 18 months, I’ve testified three times. I’ve been on the Hill twice this summer, we had a lunch and learn session with House space subcommittee staff…So those are some of the things we’re doing.
It’s interesting, because we use satellites every day…If you used a navigation service, you used GPS satellites…Those are the things people don’t think about, in addition to whether you get your video services directly from satellites.
Those are the kinds of things we want to make people aware of. They tend to think of the industry when there’s an emergency. Hurricane season is a good example. Most of the other communication systems go down, but satellite systems are able to continue communicating because our infrastructure is in the sky. Very often, first responders are quite aware of the capabilities of the industry, but what we’re seeking to do is let people know the industry provides a lot of services.
In the case of broadband, because we have ubiquitous coverage and the industry continues to provide greater capacity and speeds, people will be pleasantly surprised by the capability of the industry.
How frequently do you meet with members and staff?
It’s probably not as frequently as I would like, but part of it is based on the size of the organization…Basically there are two of us that deal with policy issues and we also provide coverage at the FCC, the State Department, the Commerce Department. There are a lot of areas impacted by the industry, so we have to allocate our resources. Much of our work is done in conjunction with our members…so the satellite industry is on Capitol Hill on a regular basis.
The Pentagon has said it wants to launch smaller, cheaper satellites. Do you see the industry adapting to that?
The industry would be doing that regardless. In many ways, it is more the Defense Department is acknowledging the capabilities of the industry and shifting its planned use of satellites accordingly. I think this is an instance where the Defense Department realizes where the commercial industry is going and wants to take advantage of that capability.
We have a workshop in December of every year in partnership with [U.S. Strategic Command]. We’re working on the programming now, but small satellites is an example of a topic they want to make sure is covered. Other things we cover with them are innovations throughout the industry as a whole.
What are the biggest misperceptions you encounter when you talk with members and staff?
The biggest thing we encounter is about capability of broadband systems. I use this as an example with my members…About 15 years ago, I only lived 15 miles outside of Washington, but I didn’t have any kind of broadband service and had satellite service and it was relatively slow. Today, I used satellite broadband in my office and it works exceptionally well. We’re trying to get that message out to someone who may have had experience with a satellite broadband service, they’re not necessarily aware of what’s just been launched.
Three years from now, we’ll have the same issue because what will be deployed will be that much faster…That’s probably been the biggest challenge.