All that most people in Washington know about Intelsat is that they don't like the new headquarters it is building next to the University of the District of Columbia on upper Connecticut Avenue.
That ignorance about the international telecommunications satellite organization -- and perhaps the antipathy towards its Euro-tech architecture -- helps explain why the United States is promoting a plan that threatens the efficiency of the worldwide communications system.
The same specious economic and political arguments that have led us to screw up our own phone system are now being advanced by Reagan administration officials who want to tinker with Intelsat.
Intelsat isn't broken, but Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark Fowler wants to fix it anyway.
Fix it just like we've fixed the phone system -- with higher rates, poorer service and complicated choices of equipment and carriers that most people would just as soon avoid.
Dramatic increases in phone bills are all that most ordinary consumers are getting from breaking up the Bell System and opening up the phone business to free-for-all competition. Dramatic increases in worldwide communications costs are all that most countries will get if the United States proceeds to let private companies compete with Intelsat.
Intelsat now has a monopoly on international satellite communications services. Telephones, television, data transmission and virtually all other high-tech communications services are or can be provided by Intelsat. The 109 member nations of the consortium route all their transoceanic calls, much of their international traffic and some of their domestic business via Intelsat. Regional multinational satellite systems in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific handle some local needs but do not compete with Intelsat's bread-and-butter business.
The Reagan administration is moving to end Intelsat's monopoly by recommending the FCC license several U.S. firms to offer international satellite communications services. Orion Satellite Corp. -- a Washington outfit with no track record -- has led the lobbying for the FCC approval. Several other firms are pushing hard for what they see as a license to steal the most lucrative parts of Intelsat's business.
The U.S. entrepreneurs are not asking for the right to compete to provide satellite phone service to Zambia, they want only to be able to compete for high density, high profit business like transmitting transatlantic computer signals.
There is no question that private enterprise could provide some services more cheaply. In the same way that a supermarket subsidizes its loss leaders by charging higher prices for some staples, Intelsat uses profits from its most attractive routes to pay for serving obscure corners of the Third World.
The Bell System used the same cross-subsidy technique to build the world's finest telephone system for the United States, providing low-cost, universal phone service to isolated farms as well as urban areas. We've always known -- when we bothered to think about it -- that it costs more to put a phone up a hollow in West Virginia than to add another extension in Georgetown. But we gladly paid the secret subsidy, knowing the nation as a whole benefited.
With the breakup of the Bell System, those cross subsidies are ending. Long-distance rates which used to cover much of the loss on local service are coming down because MCI and others who offer only long-distance calling can provide that service for a lot less than Ma Bell used to charge. Without long-distance revenues to subsidize local service, local rates are exploding. Residential consumers face even more rate hikes because the phone company is losing once-lucrative business customers to its competitors.
The same thing is certain to happen to Intelsat, despite assurances to the contrary from Fowler and the White House.
In recommending the FCC action, the White House also urged "that the integrity and economic viability of Intelsat should be protected."
You can't do both, contends former FCC commissioner Abbott Washburn, one of the few people to speak out on the Intelsat issue who doesn't have a personal or financial interest in the outcome.
The administration contends that Intelsat can be protected by limiting the kinds of services its competitors can offer. Keeping the competitors isolated will be technologically and politically impossible, respond Intelsat and its supporters.
Warning a congressional committee last week of the weakness of the administration's promised protection, Washburn said, "My own view is that as a safety net for Intelsat, it is made of cheesecloth."
Ideology seems to be the force behind the effort to let U.S. companies compete with Intelsat. The ayatollahs of competition-at-any-cost are demanding the U.S. private sector get a piece of the international satellite action, even if the rest of the world has to pay for it.
The rest of the world is responding with outrage at what most other countries see as the greedy gringos attacking the most successful example of international cooperation. The United States is getting a bad rap around the world.
The advocates of Intelsat competition seem to have forgotten how the United States built the finest telecommunications system in history. It was a government-regulated monopoly that gave America low-cost, universal telephone service, not competition between rival phone companies. If that system was good enough for the United States, it ought to be good enough for the rest of the world.