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Communication Satellites: profitable commercial technology or national security concern?

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By: Katherine Bricceno

Amid all the news about the fiscal cliff last week, you may have missed that President Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act1.  In addition to setting the Department of Defense’s budget and a pay raise for military personnel, the legislation allows American companies to sell communication satellites as technology while maintaining export restrictions on nations like China and North Korea2. Since 1999, communication satellites had been treated as munitions and their export was restricted due to concerns of national security.

The legislation enacting these restrictions was passed during the Justice Department’s investigation of two American aerospace companies, Hughes and Loral, for illegal transfer of rocket technology to China3. The companies were accused of sharing information regarding a failed Chinese rocket launch. Three classified studies found national security was harmed by the release of this information, which the authors believed could improve the accuracy and reliability of future ballistic missiles produced by China. In a 2002 civil settlement, Loral paid fines to the State Department, ending the Justice Department’s investigation.

Satellite communications have long been at the intersection of military, government and commercial research interests beginning with the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.  In 1960 AT&T requested permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch a satellite communications system4.  At the time, the FCC did not have a mechanism to process such a request, but quickly established policy governing such technology.  By 1964, NASA had granted contracts for communication satellites to 3 companies and a half dozen satellites were in orbit. The technology allowed Americans to watch live coverage of portions of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics5

The initial satellite launches relied on intercontinental ballistic missiles, but the missiles were designed to travel in an arc, following the curve of the earth, not to deliver an object into orbit4. The size of the satellites was also problematic. Early versions were smaller and spun in orbits that were not synchronized to earth’s orbit. In contrast to these versions, the Department of Defense was testing ADVENT, a geosynchronous satellite that was three-axis stabilized rather than spinning, but it was never successfully launched and was ultimately canceled. Following modifications to the vehicles, later launches could use larger and heavier satellites. By the mid-1970s, the communications satellites looked much like the more complex ADVENT versions and allowed solar arrays and more antennas to be deployed.

The 1964 Olympic coverage was an early example of the international nature of such communications.  Negotiations between the roughly half dozen countries with stations able to receive satellite communications resulted in INTELSAT (International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) that ultimately owned and managed the rapidly growing system6.  By 1969 global satellite coverage was achieved, allowing people around the world to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing. In 1979, the United Nations International Maritime Organization sponsored the formation of INMARSAT (International Maritime Satellite Organization)7. Originally intended to allow communication among the ships, it now provides many forms of mobile communications.  During the first Gulf War, INMARSAT was brought to the public’s attention because their communication satellites allowed journalists to report, in real time, events occurring in the war zone. We have now come to expect live news footage and reports from remote or hostile locations. Those who can’t live without their smartphones also appreciate INMARSAT’s launch of the first global 3G broadband network in 2009. INTELSAT and INMARSAT are now private and public, respectively limited companies.

Last week’s defense legislation is obviously financially advantageous to American companies developing new communication satellite technologies and those providing global communication services who are likely to see an increase in customers. There remains the concern that technology contained within the communications satellites could be used by foreign government to improve military weapons. Consider that in the 1998 Justice Department investigation, the companies’ employees, not its satellites, were the suspected source of sensitive information. This investigation would suggest careful vetting of personnel is a critical security measure. Rep. Howard Berman (D, CA) took a different view, arguing that commercial sales would be beneficial to national security2. By his logic, an American satellite company permitted to make international sales would be more competitive and better able to provide the innovative technology on which the national security establishment relies for satellites and spacecraft used in military operations. Ultimately, the passage of this legislation is a second chance for both companies and government regulators to demonstrate they can balance financial and political interests with national security safeguards.


1. Obama signs $633-billion defense bill. Jim Garamone. American Forces Press Service. Accessed Jan 4, 2013.

2. Communications Satellites Made Legal for Export. William J Broad. New York Times. Accessed Jan 4 2013.

3. China: Possible Missile Technology Transfers from U.S. Satellite Export Policy –Actions and Chronology. Shirley A. Kan. Jan 2002 Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Accesses Jan 6 2012.

4. Communications Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible. David J Whalen. NASA History Division. Accessed Jan 5 2013.

5. Olympic Broadcasting History. Olympic Broadcasting Services. Accessed Jan 6 2013.

6. Our History. Intelsat. Accessed Jan 6 2013.

7. Our History. Inmarsat. Accessed Jan 6 2013.


Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 8, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Posted in Essays

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