No Higher Calling

by

After spending 30 years working at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), my friend and former colleague Tom Tycz is about to retire. It is an event worthy of recognition, and of deeper thought.

Those of us in the private sector are routinely critical of government decisions that seem ill considered, and of the relatively slow p ace of government decision-making. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, the decision-making process can often be improved by thoughtful — and occasionally vociferous — criticism.

All too commonly, however, we let our irritation with government decisions develop into facile derision of the decision-makers — the politicians and bureaucrats who seem so easy to mock. This is where we often go wrong. The career of my friend Tom Tycz, and the careers of his colleagues at the FCC, should stand as a reminder that there is no higher calling than public service.

I’ve known Tom since 1994 when he came to work for me at the newly created International Bureau at the FCC. He was the first (and until now only) chief of the International Bureau’s Satellite Division. Simply put, Tom — and the dedicated staff of professionals who worked with him — is as responsible as anyone for the enormous success of the satellite industry over the past decade.

We in the private sector commonly believe, and often say, that it is our insight, vision, effort and investment that are responsible for the success of the satellite industry. Like many common beliefs, that one is true only up to a point. We easily forget that without the right legal and regulatory framework our effort and investment might never occur, or might go for naught. Without a public policy that promotes competition, protects investment and encourages innovation, we would all be doing something else with our time and money.

It was Tom and his colleagues in government who kept that in mind. They created, implemented and, when necessary, changed the public policy that allowed the private sector to go about its work and to invest with confidence.

In just the last 10 years alone, Tom and his team played a central role in crafting rules that:

  • Ended the artificial barrier between the domestic and international satellite markets;
  • Allowed foreign-owned and licensed satellite systems to compete in the U.S. market;
  • Allowed the launch of non-geostationary satellites ;
  • Led to the licensing of digital radio satellites;
  • Resulted in the first auction of a satellite slot;
  • Effectively and rationally implemented the privatization of Intelsat and Inmarsat;
  • Revised the U.S. satellite licensing process to eliminate the artificial shortage of satellite slots; and
  • Expanded the scope of satellite systems through the use of ancillary terrestrial networks.

He also led a coordination process that allowed thorough use of the orbital resources available and developed new coordination methods for non-homogeneous satellites in nongeostationary orbits .

Along the way, they cleared the detritus of the old regulatory regime that had made investment in new satellite systems and services uniquely difficult.

In short, Tom and his colleagues created the legal framework allowing the development of entirely new markets for satellite services and opened existing markets to new competitors and robust competition. No one person or group of people, anywhere, has done as much to promote the satellite industry and — along with it — the public interest.

Now that Tom is moving on, probably to the private sector, it is worth reflecting on what it means to devote 30 years of one’s life to public service — and to do it with intelligence and grace. I served in the government for three years, and left exhausted by the demands of such service.

As I think about it, Tom’s accomplishment is overwhelming. He, his colleagues at the FCC and others remaining in public service across the government, deserve more recognition and more thanks than they get.

Finally, the good news is that as Tom moves on, there are others to take his place. So far, at least, there are always some willing to devote their time and talent to public service. But merely being a government employee does not make one a public servant in the same way that Tom Tycz has been. Replacing Tom will be much harder than just filling his job.

Tom meant so much to the satellite industry, and did so much for the public interest, because he managed to combine expertise with humility. He knew all there was to know about satellite systems and satellite regulation, but he never for a moment thought that he knew it all. Whenever he heard a new proposal or a new vision about a satellite service, Tom used his expertise to ask the hard questions — but he never said, “It can’t be done.” Rather than using his expertise to kill new ideas, Tom used his expertise to say, “Maybe it can be done this way.” That was Tom’s way. May his successor have the same talent for and devotion to public service.

Scott Blake Harris is the managing partner of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, a law firm in Washington. He also served as the first chief of the International Bureau at the FCC.