From ‘Open Skies’ to Traffic Jams in 12 GHz: A Short History of Satellite Radio Spectrum


As an industry, communications satellites have traced a wobbly trajectory. Envisioned to bring revolutionary advances to telecommunications services in the U.S. Communications Satellite Act of 1962, the marketplace did open via Comsat, a public-private partnership. But the sluggish pace was revealed a decade later when progress increased substantially with the Open Skies policy. Free entry collapsed costs for wide area distribution of broadcasting services, launching the U.S. cable television industry (disrupting the TV broadcasting triopoly) in the 1980s and then direct-to-subscriber satellite TV (challenging the new incumbent cable operators) in the 1990s. In ensuing decades, however, fortunes reversed. Satellite phone and broadband service providers—Iridium, Teledesic, Motient, Intelsat and many others—financially crashed and burned. Yet another reversal may now be in evidence, however: satellites in service have increased more than three-fold in the past decade. Spasms of technological progress, including gains in small device electronics, are driving market change: “While some [satellites] are the size of a bus and weighing over 6,000 pounds, they can also be as small as a lunchbox,” noted a 2018 Aspen Institute report. “Constellations can now be composed of hundreds or even thousands of satellites.” The new mega-constellations are creating a crowded sky. With demand for orbital slots and complementary radio bands dramatically intensifying, new policy formulations are being floated. We outline possible innovations in spectrum property rights.