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FCC Slot Order May Be Prelude

By | August 23, 2004

      A recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) order that allows El Segundo, Calif.-based DirecTV to use an orbital slot at 72.5 degrees W controlled by Telesat Canada shows that that U.S. regulatory body is willing to modify its policies to serve the public interest.

      The next step could be for the FCC to allow 4.5-degree spacing between orbital locations that provide satellite television services, instead of the 9-degree spacing required now. A request from Princeton, N.J.-based SES Americom is pending before the agency to use a slot licensed to Gibraltar at 105.5 degrees W that ultimately could be approved if ongoing industry efforts succeed to coordinate its use with 4.5 degrees of spacing.

      The ruling regarding use of the Canadian-controlled slot is “significant” for DirecTV, the largest U.S. satellite TV service provider, said Bob Marsocci, its vice president of corporate communications. The company will be able to relocate its DirecTV 5 satellite into the 72.5-degree W orbital slot, and it will begin offering local channels to 24 additional U.S. markets.

      The 24 markets that would receive local channels through the 72.5 degree W slot range from East Coast locations, such as Syracuse, N.Y., and Charlestown, S.C., to medium-sized Midwestern locations, such as Traverse City, Mich.; Lincoln, Neb.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Springfield, Mo.; and the South’s Waco, Texas.

      “It is very important for us in acquiring new customers,” Marsocci said. “Consumers want to watch local programming, news, weather and sports that are relevant to their lives.” The first of the 24 additional markets that will receive local signals will gain access to the service starting in late September, while the rest would come on line by early October, Marsocci said.

      The use of the 72.5-degree slot became possible when Telesat Canada agreed to give DirecTV access in return for using the U.S. satellite-TV provider’s DirecTV 3 satellite at 82 degrees W. The orbital slot at 82 degrees W also is controlled by Telesat Canada. DirecTV’s willingness to allow one of its own in-orbit satellites to be used by another satellite-services operator in exchange for gaining access to the 72.5 degrees W is a creative “spectrum-sharing agreement” that reflects the increasingly value of orbital slots, Marsocci said.

      Telesat Canada is using the DirecTV 3 satellite to fill in for a faulty in-orbit spacecraft. DirecTV 3, which had been an in-orbit spare, is used by Telesat Canada to deliver direct-to-home (DTH) services into that country.

      “Because it was an in-orbit spare, it gave us the flexibility for them (Telesat Canada officials) to use that slot,” Marsocci told us.

      The FCC’s decision helps DirecTV to solve some of its capacity challenges with regard to meeting their commitment to serve all 200-plus local markets, said Tim Logue, a telecommunications consultant in the Washington, D.C., office of the Coudert Brothers law firm. Andrea Maleter, technical director at Bethesda, Md.-based market-forecasting firm Futron Corp., added the FCC’s approval of DirecTV’s petition is an “important step” toward implementing local-into-local DTH program distribution. She also said the decision reflects a willingness on the part of the FCC to “encourage full utilization” of all available orbital slots and spectrum to meet that goal.

      Next Step?

      A logical next step in fully using the existing slots and spectrum might be for the commission to grant SES Americom’s petition to use the 105.5-degrees W slot. The FCC previously had sought comments about using 4.5 degrees of spacing rather than 9 degrees, and it is relying on the affected companies to try coordinating such an arrangement before making any formal decisions.

      Phillip Spector, a partner who heads the telecommunications practice in the Washington, D.C., office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said the FCC has recognized the need for more direct broadcast satellite (DBS) spectrum in the United States. The FCC’s Aug. 20 order also clarifies that such spectrum can come from non-U.S. orbital slots that still have look angles that allow service to the United States, he added. The approval was given, even though Canada does not allow reciprocity for the use of U.S.-licensed orbital slots to beam any kind of programming, Canadian or not, into Canada.

      The “last piece” of the approval process, said Spector, who represents SES Americom, would be for the FCC to recognize that reduced spacing between satellites is feasible if the proper coordination is performed from an engineering standpoint.

      SES Americom is looking to use the 105.5 degrees WL slot, licensed by Gibraltar, for broadcast satellite services (BSS) in the United States. EchoStar Communications [DISH] has an option to lease capacity on a satellite that may end up deployed at 105.5 degrees WL by SES Americom. In comments filed with the FCC, EchoStar agreed that 4.5 degrees spacing between BSS orbital slots would be technically feasible.

      However, DirecTV is resisting, claiming concerns about potential interference, although SES Americom has alleged that competitive considerations are also behind the DirecTV opposition.

      “We have had a petition pending for two years,” Spector said. The biggest challenge appears to be ensuring that in-orbit BSS satellites separated by 4.5 degrees of spacing could be coordinated to avoid interference.

      “The FCC has encouraged us to seek coordination with our neighbors in the orbital arc about the technical issues,” Spector said. “We are engaged in the process and we are optimistic about reaching a successful conclusion.”

      In addition, the FCC does not need to await the outcome of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) coordination meetings before approving the SES Americom petition, Spector said. “There is substantial precedent for licensing U.S. applicants, with the license subject to the outcome of the coordination,” Spector said. “The FCC could, and should, take the same approach with the SES Americom petition, granting the petition because additional DBS spectrum is very much in the public interest, but making the grant conditional on the completion of ITU coordination.”

      (Bob Marsocci, DirecTV, 310/726-4656; Monica Morgan, SES Americom, 609/987-4143; Phillip Spector, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, 202/223-7340; Andrea Maleter, Futron Corp., 301/347-3450; Tim Logue, Coudert Brothers, 202/736-1816)

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