Supporting an industry in transition
By Tom Risen|March 2017
The private sector’s interest in generating revenue by launching and operating non-government satellites has exploded during Tom Stroup’s three years as president of the Satellite Industry Association in Washington, D.C. Stroup sees great opportunities for his group’s 40 member organizations, which include manufacturers, launch companies and service providers. The Trump administration’s intention to re-evaluate international trade, for instance, could be a chance to expand technology exports, and the “internet of things” is increasing demand for satellite services among government and private-sector clients. Stroup’s training as a lawyer, his previous telecom advocacy with the Wireless Infrastructure Association, and experience launching and managing several businesses in the communications sector give him perspective on the regulatory and technological environment. I spoke by phone and email with Stroup about issues facing the industry.
Miniaturization and cost cutting
Going back to the 1990s, satellites were custom built. [Compared with the 1990s] we’ve got much lower costs in building satellites, much lower costs in deploying them. The ability to provide ever-increasing speed and capacity with lower power requirements is driven by the improving technology. It’s not just the ability to put it into a small package, it’s the ability to pack a lot more capacity into large satellites. Miniaturization is already taking place. Just as Moore’s Law had an impact on all forms of computing, you see that happening with satellite tech. If you looked at the deployment plans of OneWeb and SpaceX, they are planning on mass-producing satellites. They are using off-the-shelf tech for their satellites. That dramatically lowers costs of deploying satellites. The launch costs have [also] come down. There are a number of companies that have plans to offer launch services beyond those that are in the business. It’s almost a combination of all of these that help drive the opportunity.
Demand for smart car wireless
There is so much software in cars today that require upgrades and it is so expensive to bring the car into the shop for an upgrade. Auto manufacturers are looking for more efficient means of reaching their cars. As you can imagine, the most efficient way to do that is via satellites. One manufacturer sells 60 percent of its cars into markets where there isn’t 3G or 4G mobile services. Companies like Kymeta [of Washington state] are working with auto manufacturers to integrate their antenna technology into the cars and working with satellite operators to provide updates worldwide. You look at the ownership of Tesla, its sister company is SpaceX, so they may well view their proposed satellite broadband constellation as a potential opportunity to expand their market reach.
Space traffic management
[Shifting responsibility to FAA is] certainly worthy of examination. From the satellite industry’s perspective, we want to make sure that whatever changes take place [those changes] provide the same or better level of accuracy. It’s nothing more than a discussion at this point. But I know DoD and FAA have been engaged in how this could happen and how DoD could share that information. The FAA has had discussions about how they could do a pilot program, which is something that I would recommend regardless of any changes that would take place. With the change in the [presidential] administration, I’m not sure if there is going to be a change in approach.
The whole space traffic management issue is getting greater awareness right now. I won’t say there are any answers or suggested changes on how it’s handled. The satellite industry has long been used to coordinating amongst themselves. No one has indicated “you cannot operate all of these satellites safely” — there just needs to be sufficient spacing [in orbital altitude].
Military interest in small satellites
As some countries deploy anti-satellite capabilities, the DoD is deploying plans to protect its ability to communicate and gather information. One element of that resiliency plan is to utilize the capability of commercial satellites, so that there are such a large number of satellites either used or capable of being used by DoD that it would be impossible to shut down their ability to communicate and observe from space short of destroying the space environment for all nations. They need to have the ability to have imagery of what is happening on the battlefield or other areas of potential conflict, as well as communicating down to the individual soldier level.
Cybersecurity for satellites
Our members have been deploying tech to make sure they are not capable of being hacked. There are different types of satellites that are deployed, so we have put together a set of principles — none that I think are unique to satellites. Each company works toward ensuring they are compliant with the principles [including voluntary information sharing]. There is such heightened sensitivity, especially from a customer’s perspective. It tends to be handled on a company basis. We don’t have a set of requirements.
It is critical that exchanged information be confidential, secure, and used only for purposes of strengthening security and combating bad actors. Information about threats, mitigations, business processes, or capabilities is competitively sensitive and, in the wrong hands, can aid bad actors.
Trump and tech trade
Prior to the reform of the [U.S. State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations], commercial satellites and many components were restricted from sale outside the country by U.S. manufacturers. In 2014 those limits were modified, providing U.S. companies much greater latitude to compete in the international market. There remain restrictions on Earth imaging companies, however, and we are working with our members to seek to remove those limits. There are limits on the clarity of imagery that companies show — and limits on the aperture size of satellites that can be exported. There comes a point where a technology is available outside the U.S., so it is not affecting any intellectual property or security concern. If one can buy the same tech in Europe, it doesn’t really benefit to keep American companies from selling it. With the current administration’s push for creating jobs, they will want to ensure that American manufacturers are on equal footing with their foreign competitors, so we think there is an opportunity for us to be able to move it up on their list of priorities, so at least the discussion would happen. ★