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FCC’s Ableson Backs Industry

By | September 15, 2003

      The International Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission provided an upbeat view of the industry during the commission’s monthly meeting last week.

      IB Chief Don Abelson cited the growing demand for commercial satellite services such as communications, broadcasting and imaging; the unique technical capabilities that enhance people’s lives; and a recent streamlining of the licensing process to aid the industry’s competitiveness. The supportive words from the FCC’s top satellite regulator are notable in light of the industry’s weak political clout at the agency, which often results in its interests being subjugated to those of powerful broadcasting, cable and consumer electronics companies.

      The satellite industry offers an advantage over other technologies in that it already has migrated from analog to digital, Abelson said.

      The benefit of providing digital quality services is reflected in the brisk growth of satellite TV in the United States during recent years when its cable industry rivals used inferior analog equipment. U.S. direct broadcast satellite (DBS) subscribers numbered 10 million in June 1999 and grew to nearly 20 million at the end of 2002, according to The Carmel Group, a satellite and media consulting firm in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.

      Satellite radio services in the United States have amassed 800,000 subscribers since the industry began commercial service in late 2001. Indeed, satellite radio is expected to double that number by year-end.

      The use of digital technology provides a “very efficient means” of sending data, and offering expanded services with less capacity than analog. Satellites feature a “competitive backbone” and platform for communications. On the other hand, certain sectors of the satellite industry have exhibited “profound weakness,” as part of an overall telecommunications downturn, Abelson said.

      Satellites provide a wide range of services, such as ATM, distance learning, tele-medicine and crop analysis, Abelson said. Other applications that increasingly will be delivered by satellites in the future include broadband Internet access, homeland security, disaster relief and rural communications. “Satellites [provide] a critical communications network,” Abelson explained.

      The capability of satellites to operate in places where terrestrial technology is not available led Abelson to announce a Jan. 28 forum about how the technology can be used specifically to enhance rural communications. The acceptance of satellite services by rural America is demonstrated in Arkansas, Idaho and Minnesota, where satellite TV subscribers outnumber cable customers.

      Abelson also identified steps taken by the FCC through a new policy rolled out Aug. 27 to aid the industry in obtaining spectrum and licensing. The new licensing process is aimed at speeding delivery of satellite services to consumers through increased regulatory certainty that would advance the digital migration, facilitate spectrum efficiency and continue U.S. leadership in the global satellite industry.

      The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) welcomed Abelson’s announcement that the commission would host a rural satellite forum, which will address the role that satellites play to ensure the connectivity of rural America.

      Industry Praise

      Richard DalBello, president of the SIA, said that the bureau chief’s presentation touched upon “many critical roles” that satellites play in providing economic and physical security. “This report did an outstanding job of highlighting the satellite industry’s unique ability to serve all regions of the world, regardless of population or location,” DalBello said. “And, we also look forward to working together closely with the commission in preparation for its rural satellite forum in January 2004.”

      DalBello singled out the remarks of Commissioner Michael J. Copps about the satellite industry needing regulatory certainty, time, and adequate amounts of critical spectrum.

      “I believe in the satellite industry,” Copps said. “I think that it has incredible things to offer for innovative consumer services, business services, international communications, national security, and rural America. I also understand that the satellite business is different from the terrestrial wireless industry. Its time lines are different, challenges on funding are different, and the technology is far different. But sometimes big, long, more difficult investments yield immense value in the long run.”

      In addition, the FCC needs to guard against trying to shoehorn the satellite industry into a “one-size-fits-all” regulatory framework, Copps said.

      Formed in 1995 as an operating entity of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA), the SIA represents the common interests of the satellite communications industry by providing a voice for satellite manufacturers, service providers, and launch service companies.

      The limited political clout of the satellite industry in Washington was exhibited last week when the FCC adopted rules for the manufacture of digital “plug and play” TV sets. Those rules are designed to ensure that digital TV sets built in the future will be compatible with cable operating systems. Satellite industry representatives criticized the rulemaking process, charging that they were left out of the talks and their interests were sacrificed.

      The new rules are meant to let consumers plug their cable connections directly into digital TV sets that would be built in the future to operate without a set-top box. The FCC action is aimed at easing the transition to digital TV by promoting competition, convenience and simplicity for consumers.

      “We regret that the commission did not heed the requests that SBCA and the DBS providers made in numerous filings and documents that detailed reasonable alternatives other than what the cable and consumer electronics industries dictated,” according to an SBCA statement. –Paul Dykewicz

      (Don Abelson, FCC, 202/418-0437; Richard DalBello, SIA, 703/739-8376; Rob Udowitz, SBCA; Jimmy Schaeffler, The Carmel Group, 831/643-2222)

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