FCC Tries to Avert Threatened Satellite Cutoff

By Holly Watt
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 2, 2008

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission issued a last-minute appeal to a satellite telecommunications company yesterday, urging it to continue providing Internet and other satellite-based services to a subscriber despite a contract dispute.

SES Americom had threatened to shut off satellite service to OnSat Network Communications, saying it is owed more than $4 million. Their dispute involves the delivery of Internet services to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

But FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin noted in a letter to SES Americom's chief operating officer, Jim Ducay, that such an action would also cut off "significant public safety services to first responders across the country," affecting "at least 25 public safety entities in 13 states."

Martin, a Republican appointee, warned of the serious risks of such a disruption, writing, "These agencies can ill afford to be confronted with a precipitous loss of service when dealing with potentially life or death situations."

SES Americom, based in Princeton, N.J., had announced it would switch off the satellite service yesterday. The company, which has a fleet of 15 satellites and government customers including NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, refused to comment on its actions.

The Navajo tribe, which numbers about 250,000, lost free Internet in its libraries and community centers in April, leaving many people on the vast reservation miles from Internet access. OnSat, an Internet service provider, says that an arm of the FCC, Universal Service Administrative Co., owes it $2.1 million in federal funding.

That funding has been held up after a tribal audit revealed billing irregularities and questions over the bidding process. OnSat rejects the audit's findings and plans to fight them in tribal court.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who alerted Martin's agency to the Navajos' impasse, is "very glad the FCC is getting involved and hopes they can resolve the issue for the long term as well as the short term," said his spokeswoman Jude McCartin.

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