Op-ed | Running interference on U.S. space policy
This op-ed originally appeared in the Aug. 13, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
We are living in a golden era of space communications. Space companies are perfecting the ability to reuse rocket boosters, increasing accessibility to space by reducing their cost. We’re lucky to have an administration that understands the importance of space. Not just for industry, but benefitting everyday Americans across the nation. Unfortunately, one initiative may threaten this progress.
The Trump administration has made the space industry a high priority. Earlier this year, the administration restored the National Space Council. In a Colorado Springs speech discussing National Space Council initiatives, Vice President Mike Pence noted that “President Trump knows that a stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and resilience of our national security systems.” In speech after speech, policymakers across government have recognized the immense, positive impact of the space industry.
In remarks before the National Space Council, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross outlined the administration’s initiative to support space commerce, including the creation of a commercial space office, to support a space industry that is expected to be a multitrillion-dollar industry in the coming decades.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai similarly said the industry is “poised for a breakout.” Chairman Pai has noted the significant contributions U.S. satellite companies make to a $260 billion global industry; one that supports over 200,000 American jobs, many of them in manufacturing.
NTIA Administrator David Redl extolled the impact of the industry on the United States economy and remarked that “a new era in satellite coverage will strengthen our nation’s broadband infrastructure and power advanced services that will improve people’s lives.” In particular, he pointed out the power of NOAA satellites and GPS satellites, noting that “the world as we know it today literally would not exist without these satellites.”
These policy makers have backed up their words with action. The FCC has worked tirelessly to make more spectrum available for advanced satellite services. These opportunities have attracted well-funded companies including OneWeb, SpaceX, ViaSat and others.
Because, in part, of government support, new satellite technologies from companies like Echostar are entering the market to deliver satellite broadband to unserved Americans. Similarly, Iridium has nearly finished launching the second generation of the world’s largest low-earth orbit satellite constellation enabling innovative new capabilities like global aircraft tracking. Satellite gives enterprises a new option for connectivity in remote regions of the country. Next-generation satellite technologies also mean first responders always have an option for communications in the face of disaster. Satellite provides a connection when there is no other option, and that capability is needed more than ever before.
In the face of all this growth and optimism, one policy option facing the administration threatens the continued viability of many satellite services: the latest salvo from Ligado Networks, the company most recently known as LightSquared. As the administration and policymakers tout the satellite industry’s advancements, Ligado continues to pull out all the stops in its quest for government approval to build a high-powered terrestrial wireless network, right in the middle of a satellite spectrum neighborhood. According to the record, Ligado’s proposed terrestrial network would not only take away 40 MHz of spectrum devoted to America’s satellite economy but also threatens the future of at least three major satellite systems: GPS, Iridium and NOAA satellite operations. All this disruption in the name of marginally incremental spectrum for terrestrial broadband operators.
It is well documented that GPS, NOAA critical weather imaging, and Iridium are all put at risk by Ligado’s proposal to flip its satellite service into a terrestrial broadband network. Recognized GPS experts, the aviation industry, leading weather scientists, public safety leaders, and industry innovator Iridium have all raised red flags about the fate of their services if Ligado is allowed to proceed. The government, satellite industry and a broad coalition of groups that depend on satellite access for navigation, communication and public safety have spoken in one loud clear voice. Despite this, Ligado continues to hire more lobbyists to try to jam their plan through despite objections.
The future of U.S. Space policy and the industry built on it has never been brighter than it is today under the Trump administration. It would be a tremendous mistake to jeopardize that future in the name of one company’s business plan based on a spectrum arbitrage play. Our space future is simply too bright to take that risk.
Lance W. Lord is the chairman and chief executive officer of L2 Aerospace. Lord served 37 years in the U.S. military, most recently as head of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. He serves on the government advisory board of Iridium Communications, LLC, an entity that has filed at the FCC with concerns regarding interference to their networks and customers from Ligado’s proposed network plans.