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An Example of Effective Government Support for New Communication Technology

Larry Press

Based on their questions and comments during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the commercial satellite industry, one could not tell whether a senator was a Democrat or Republican.

The US government has a history of support of telecommunication. On March 3, 1843, the US Senate passed a bill "to test the practicability of establishing a system of electro magnetic telegraphs by the United States." The bill provided $30,000 for Samuel Morse to conduct the test. He built a telegraph link between Washington and Baltimore, and the rest is history.

The American Electro Magnetic Telegraph: With the Reports of Congress, and a Description of All Telegraphs Known, Employing Electricity Or Galvanism (Lea & Blanchard, 1845 / Source)

US government R&D, procurement, regulation, and expertise also played an important role in the development of the Internet — see Seeding Networks, the Federal Role. (If you do not have access to the paper, send me a request for a copy). Government collaborated with universities and industry on the development of the Internet up to the time they phased out support, as shown below:

Federal funding prior to the NSFNet phase out

The October Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the commercial satellite industry provides a current example of effective government support of new communication technology.

The hearing focused on broadband access, primarily from low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Witnesses from four companies — Intelsat, OneWeb, ViaSat and SpaceX — testified and the tone of the hearing was set by the opening statements of Committee Chairman John Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson. Thune began by saying "I believe we are at a critical moment in the development of satellite capability, and I am excited to hear from our panel of distinguished witnesses today." In his opening remarks, Nelson echoed Thune's optimism and among other things stated that he "would like to thank our witnesses for being here today and I look forward to discussing how we can work together to bring about this new Space Age."

The senators were sincere in their desire to serve the American people, and they were asking for recommendations as to how they could craft legislation to realize the potential of satellite broadband service. A short introductory statement by each witness was followed by questions and answers. The senator's questions were constructive — trying to learn from the witnesses, not score political points with their constituents. Based on their questions and comments, one could not tell whether a senator was a Democrat or Republican. They were all constructive.

I was also struck by the degree of overlap in the recommendations given by the four executives, for example:

  • They are all in favor of sharing spectrum among themselves and with terrestrial service providers. They agree that dividing frequency bands among operators is the least desirable and most inefficient way to avoid interference.
  • The four agree that satellite safety and debris mitigation will be critical in an era of large constellations of LEO satellites and that we need to work with International agencies to establish standards. They understand that a disastrous collision would set the entire industry back so they have a common interest in satellite safety.
  • Global standards are needed for debris mitigation, spectrum sharing, etc. and the US, with its history and expertise at NASA and the staffs of agencies like the FCC and NTIA, can and should take the lead in establishing those international standards.
  • The government definition of "broadband Internet" should be technology neutral. Today's geostationary satellite service is slower than terrestrial service, but speeds of coming LEO services will be comparable to terrestrial service.
  • OneWeb is also working on a grappling mechanism for retrieving spent satellites and Greg Wyler said they "hope to open source" the design. No other witnesses mentioned open source, but given Tesla's open source policy, we might expect open source designs from SpaceX as well.

The only explicit disagreement I heard was OneWeb arguing against the Connect America Fund subsidy, but, if it is not limited, I am sure they would like to receive funds. In general, the satellite providers have many common interests and they would like procedures and policies adjusted to allow them to compete on a level playing field with terrestrial ISPs.

Watching this hearing reminded me of the collaboration between Intel, Digital Equipment Corporation and Xerox to create the Ethernet standard. Potential competitors grouped together to define a standard that would enable a large, competitive market as opposed to several small proprietary markets. LEO satellite broadband feels like a startup industry — reminiscent of the early personal computer days in the US, the ARPAnet and Internet in the days of the Acceptable Use Policy or even the Cuban start-up scene today.

You can see the hearing yourself — the senators' opening statements, the written testimony of the witnesses and a video of the entire hearing, including questions, answers, and discussion among the senators and witnesses may be found here. SpaceX and OneWeb are both planning large LEO satellite constellations and you will find summaries of their testimonies at the end of these progress reports: SpaceX and OneWeb.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University
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Promoted Post

Buying or Selling IPv4 Addresses?

Watch this video to discover how ACCELR/8, a transformative trading platform developed by industry veterans Marc Lindsey and Janine Goodman, enables organizations to buy or sell IPv4 blocks as small as /20s.