For more than a decade, U.S. laws have grounded satellites that provide commercial telephone service and television broadcasts under the same export restrictions applied to ballistic missiles and anti-tank weapons. But on Thursday President Barack Obama signed legislation that will re-classify communications satellites as civilian technology –and give the American aerospace business a huge boost in the process.
House resolution 4310, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, moves communications satellites and equipment off a list of restricted munitions managed by the U.S. Department of State and puts the technology under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Commerce Department. As a result, U.S. aerospace businesses like Boeing, Loral Space & Communications, Lockheed Martin, Iridium and Hughes (a subsidiary of EchoStar) are now free to export communications satellites as a civilian technology. The satellite export ban was put into place in 1999, after engineers working for American aerospace companies were accused of leaking sensitive missile technology to the Chinese government. In response, a Republican-controlled Congress pushed to categorize communications satellites as weapons and initiate the export ban in order to keep China from learning more U.S. secrets. But critics of the ban say that it ended up costing the United States far more than it did China. A 2012 report from the Aerospace Industries Associationestimated that U.S. manufacturers lost $21 billion in satellite revenue between 1999-2009, costing the industry approximately 9,000 jobs each year. U.S. companies controlled 73 percent of the worldwide satellite export business in 1995, but by 2005 –just six years after the ban– that share had plummeted to 25 percent.
The new bill does retain some of the protections of the 1999 law; satellite makers are still forbidden from exporting their tech to places like Iran, China and North Korea.