Satellite operator SES Americom has been put in the unfortunate position of having to pay the price for the
government’s inertia in dealing with a situation that has the Navajo Nation in the southwestern
United States
facing a loss of critical telecommunications services.

In order to stave off a crisis potentially affecting life and limb in the sprawling and remote region, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has pressured SES Americom to continue providing transponder capacity to a badly delinquent customer that holds the contract to provide the services in question.

SES Americom’s threatened service cutoff could well pose a public safety hazard, as its cash-strapped customer, OnSat Network Communications, has argued. But this has been going on for more than a year – OnSat is now more than $4 million in arrears – and media outlets have reported on the situation at least since early April. During this time, the FCC and
New Mexico
‘s U.S. Senate delegation, which in July asked the FCC to intervene on behalf of OnSat and the Navajo Nation, could have been working harder to shake loose the federal funds to pay for the services.

The money is supposed to be drawn from the
government’s Universal Service Fund, which is managed by Universal Service Administrative Co., or USAC, a not-for-profit entity overseen by the FCC. It has been frozen by a pair of investigations, one by USAC and one by the Navajo Nation, into alleged improprieties associated with the OnSat contract award.

investigation raised questions about the contract, and the organization’s regulatory guidelines bar it from releasing the funds until those are resolved. In the meantime, a law firm representing the attorney general of the Navajo Nation has asked USAC and the FCC to take no action on the matter until the Navajos’ own investigation is completed.

Chief Executive David Stephens, for his part, denies there were any improprieties associated with the contract award and dismissed the Navajo Nation’s request as internal Navajo politics. Without insight into either, it is not possible to fairly judge who is at fault here, although one thing seems certain: it’s not SES Americom.

Mr. Stephens has accused SES Americom of imposing “arbitrary deadlines” and refusing to accommodate OnSat as it tries to find another satellite-service provider.

In fact, SES Americom has been more than patient and accommodating, having agreed at the FCC’s request to extend service several times since its contract with OnSat expired June 30 – despite the fact that it is not getting paid. That the satellite operator’s frustration has begun to show is perfectly understandable. In an Aug. 4 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, SES Americom Chief Financial Officer Robert Kisilywicz said: “We cannot continue to be caught in the middle or required to provide service to a grossly delinquent customer because third parties are not taking action to protect themselves from that customer’s financial difficulties.”

Yet, as of Sept. 12, SES Americom was continuing to provide capacity to OnSat under the latest in a series of week-long service extensions. This is being done as a courtesy to the FCC – the
licensing authority for satellite operators. OnSat, meanwhile, is looking for a new satellite service provider, a task likely complicated by the fact that the company’s ability to pay is, to say the least, in question.

Mr. Martin and Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) can legitimately cite public safety concerns in working to prevent a shutoff of service to OnSat. What seems to be missing from their campaign is a discernable effort to unravel the bureaucratic tangle that has ensnared the federal funds allocated to pay for it. Also lacking, apparently, has been an effort to find a suitable alternative; one that doesn’t require a for-profit business to involuntarily provide resources without due compensation.

For a variety of reasons, among them the volume of SES Americom’s
government business, a measure of deference to
‘s wishes on this matter is to be expected. But enough is enough: it’s one thing for the FCC to ask Americom to help out in a pinch; it’s another thing entirely to rely on the company’s continued good citizenship – and resources – rather than moving aggressively to solve this problem at its source.