Satellite Associations: Which Battles Do They Need to Win?

By | May 1, 2012 | Feature, Telecom

Satellite associations aim to protect the industry’s interests, but which battles are they prioritizing? Across different regions of the world, associations are looking at ways in which they promote satellite solutions and make sure satellite still plays a key role despite the proliferation of other communications technologies.

Satellite associations have evolved dramatically in recent years — becoming increasingly vocal and visible in the public policy arena, driven, in large part, by the explosive growth of the cellular industry. Faced with global issues such as satellite interference, signal piracy and the need to respond to the scramble for more spectrum to fuel broadband demand, more and more satellite-industry associations are finding strength in numbers.

“We are finding that there are more issues where we have common interests,” says Patricia Cooper, president of the U.S.-based Satellite Industry Association (SIA), which provides a unified voice of the U.S. satellite industry on policy, regulatory and legislative issues affecting the satellite manufacturing, launch and services business.

Much of Cooper’s time is spent educating policy officials in Washington on the industry and why satellite is an important piece of the communications policy puzzle. She also advocates for policies that reflect the concerns of the satellite industry. In her four years at the helm of SIA, Cooper has seen more exchanges of information among satellite and space associations, and an increasing support between groups for specific advocacy work.

The most dramatic example of these collaborative efforts came in December, when virtually the entire global satellite community voiced their opposition to a proposed new global space financing protocol known as UNIDROIT. According to Cooper, an unprecedented 100 satellite stakeholders, from satellite manufacturing, operators, banking and insurance sectors, publicly opposed the protocol. Unfortunately, the UNIDROIT organization adopted the protocol in early March, despite the concerns of industry and several member governments, including the United States.

One of six satellite industry associations to denounce the program was Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA). Simon Twiston-Davies, CEO, CASBAA, says the legislation’s passage without any barriers imposed to it “will have a huge impact on the private financing of the satellite sector. It’s very dangerous for the financing of our industry.”

The European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), which represents the interests of Europe’s 10 major satellite operators, was also vocal on the UNIDROIT issue and other issues that reflect the common interest of the industry. One of its top three priorities this year is preserving a neutral financial environment in which satellite operators can function.

“The challenges faced by the sector are often also common in other parts of the world; therefore, cooperation with other associations is essential,” says Aarti Holla-Maini, secretary general for ESOA.


Building Awareness

Many industry association leaders build awareness with policymakers on satellite’s critical communications role. Unlike other technology sectors, satellite crosses over several communications areas, including wireless service, broadcast communications, public safety and military support, yet there is a lack of familiarity with how the industry operates. “We cover a broad waterfront; our industry has to support an extraordinary range of services and users,” says Cooper. “As we are much smaller voices compared with our terrestrial counterparts, we suffer from either no image or (being viewed as) outdated. This is at stark odds with the role we play,” adds Holla-Maini, whose top objective in 2012 is ensuring a level playing field for European satellite services given the major public investments into terrestrial solutions.

Another group, MSUA, founded in 1992 as the Inmarsat Users Association, serves the interests of all mobile satellite operators. MSUA is fighting to keep MSS bands from being passed to terrestrial services. Tim Farrar, MSUA’s president, says a key battle in his industry is the FCC’s anticipated rulemaking on the reallocation of the 2 GHz MSS band.

“Over the next year it’s going to be a big issue for us because there are a lot of people setting their sights on targeting MSS spectrum for re-allocation to terrestrial,” says Farrar, who is worried that the FCC action could signify that “we’re on a slippery slope of more of the MSS bands coming under threat.”

MSUA has collaborated with both SIA and the Global VSAT Forum (GVF) on regulatory submissions to defend MSS spectrum, and to seek a workable model for spectrum sharing. “Both organizations have been really helpful in getting our point across domestically and internationally,” he says.

Farrar notes that one issue driving associations is the industry consolidation from mergers and acquisitions, which affects membership numbers. Another driver changing the composition and focus of his association involves the fact that the MSS market no longer involves a few defined frequency bands from players such as Inmarsat, Iridium, GlobalStar and Thuraya.

“We now have to consider more widely the broadband arena and the interaction with terrestrial.” For this reason, Farrar is focusing this year on increasing outreach to entities involved in other frequency bands for mobility services such as VSAT terminal provider, KVH, which recently joined MSUA.

In the past year, SIA has worked diligently to give policymakers a better understanding of how satellite services fit as a piece of the broadband solution and how existing and planned services could be affected if spectrum planning isn’t “mindful.”

Cooper says that while her group has been successful at raising awareness with respect to satellite’s role in spectrum, “the challenge continues and policymakers continue to shift.”

“Collaboration is essential,” adds Twiston-Davies of Hong Kong-based CASBAA, an association that represents the interests of major broadcasters and some 3 billion satellite customers in Asia. About a third of CASBAA’s members come directly from the satellite sector.

His group is focused on several key issues for the satellite sector including signal theft, which costs the industry in Asia about $2 billion annually in measurable lost revenues. Thieves distribute legitimate signals in an unauthorized fashion and also misrepresent how many subscribers they actually have — cable operators even pirate entire bouquets. Unauthorized set-top boxes (IRDs and cable boxes) can be found in most Asian markets, overspill signals undermine the business model all too often and regulators have only a hazy awareness of intellectual property rights of all kinds.

CASBAA’s priority this year is to protect C-band spectrum, which the company and its 130 Asia Pacific broadcasters, platforms and satellite operators consider a significant industry challenge and an issue that garners support across the satellite community, including from other associations.


Satellite Interference

Satellite interference is another high-profile industry issue that associations are embracing. It will take center stage this summer with the Olympics in London. Satellite operators have committed that all broadcasters will employ Carrier ID, a solution that that could eliminate up to 80 percent of all interference.

The two most vocal associations in this effort are the GVF and the reorganized Satellite Interference Reduction Group (sIRG) — groups credited with introducing a new global industry standard to train and certify installers worldwide, and with launching numerous working groups to develop solutions such as Carrier ID.

Martin Coleman became executive director of SIRG a year ago this past February, and he has moved swiftly to breathe new life into the group, first by relocating the association headquarters from Florida to the Isle of Man. In the last year, Coleman has traveled the globe, talking to manufacturers and breaking down barriers.

“We brought SIRG into the 21st century and opened up our association,” he says. “It’s amazing when you engage people, how much passion is out there. We needed to set goals and get some practical things done — the best way we can help is to bring solutions to the table.” SIRG now is positioned as a leading technical group and resource to other associations seeking industry-wide engineering solutions.


Sharing Data

The need to better manage the physical space where satellites operate to avoid collisions prompted the creation of another group, the Space Data Association (SDA). Founded by satellite operators, it began operations in 2010 as the first collaborative effort to share data among competing satellite operators to make space operations safer and more reliable.

Originally focused on avoiding satellite collisions, SDA currently provides Conjunction Assessment processing for more than 340 GEO and LEO satellites, more than 65 percent of all operational satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and including more than 200 member satellites. Key goals this year include getting more reliable satellite position data on the 30 percent of orbiting satellites, which are not part of SDA, and improving its knowledge of the location of space debris.

Today, the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) tracks objects in space, but has been criticized by industry for not always providing the most accurate spacecraft-conjunction advisories. Stewart Sanders, SDA’s chairman and director, points out that JSpOC has limitations in terms of accurately pinpointing a satellite position since it doesn’t continually make those measurements. “The JSpOC has developed a set of capabilities, but they’re not really geared towards what the commercial satellite industry needs. The only people who know where a satellite is are the people who control it,” he says.

SDA’s new space data center shares data among satellite operators, and can process position location in nearly real time. The only time an operator is contacted is if there is an issue so it takes the workload off the operators.

“The best part is the motivation of operators to work with the vendor community and alongside customers,” says Sanders. “We go to meetings now and there is no division between customers, operators and vendors. Everyone is airing their views and presenting potential solutions.”

SDA is also seeking more collaboration with government entities on issues of mutual interest. “We want a more collaborative relationship with government entities. There is a recognition that we’re all in this together,” Sanders adds.

SIA has made significant inroads reaching out to government entities and providing a platform for commercial satellite players and government decision makers to share capabilities in a classified setting and explore how service providers, ground equipment manufacturers, satellite builders and operators can contribute to the provision of services to the warfighter and ensure safe operations in space.

“I’m personally proud of how we’ve advanced those discussions between industry and government,” concludes Cooper, who admits there’s still more to do as the military grapples with how to manage significant budget cuts and still deliver the services warfighters need and ensure that there are safe and reliable space operations.

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