Satellite TV has been the fastest-growing segment of the TV business for the past 10 years. It now controls 20% of TV homes and adds 9,000 new subscribers a month. But its political clout is in inverse proportion to its powerhouse growth. Deep-pocketed and entrenched lobbying machines like the National Association of Broadcasters dominate media policy.
The upstart is fighting back.
Richard DalBello, new president of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA), is on a mission. He intends to expand the group's agenda to include radio and high-speed Internet, as well as TV providers.
DalBello took the reins in March after spending three years heading the Satellite Industry Association, which represents big defense and B2B communications ops. He replaced Andrew Wright, who led SBCA for three years.
He also brings cutting-edge experience missing in the group's previous leaders. Plus, DalBello has worked as a lobbyist for startup mobile-phone providers ICO Communications and Spotcast. "Richard's in-depth knowledge and strong voice are exactly what the industry needs," says David Moskowitz, SBCA Chairman and EchoStar general counsel. "We're already seeing the benefits of his leadership."
To begin, DalBello has expanded SBCA's membership to include Cablevision's DBS VOOM and satellite-radio companies XM and Sirius. Less obvious choices have signed on, such as Boeing, which is developing in-flight TV and radio for airliners, and satellite broadband provider Wild Blue.
"We live in an age of tremendous capability," DalBello says. "This is a terrific opportunity for growth." One goal is to obtain more satellite capacity from the government, a necessary move if DBS carriers are to fulfill their obligation to carry more HDTV. He'll also fight to ensure that DBS companies carry the same lineup of local TV stations as cable operators, a right denied many midsize markets that border large cities.
DalBello didn't set out to become an aerospace expert or lobbyist when he finished law school in 1980. With an eye on public policy, he applied for a job as a research associate at the Office of Technology Assessment. Assignment to the space policy division launched his career.
He arrived as President Reagan was pushing government-run satellite consortia like Intelsat to privatize—a move that preceded the explosion of satellite communications. "The U.S. was just beginning to consider building the space station," he says.
And DalBello grew professionally with a burgeoning industry. He was hired in 1991 as a research associate at NASA and, two years later, joined the White House Office of Science and Technology. In 1997, he left for the private sector.
Which brings DalBello to his current challenge. Most of SBCA's defeats can be blamed on aggressive lobbying by the NAB. For instance, a bill working its way through Congress would grant DBS little on its wish list but ban EchoStar's practice of requiring some subscribers to install two dishes if they want all local channels in their market.
SBCA seems to lose even when NAB isn't involved. The FCC, for example, sold off DBS spectrum for a land-based microwave pay-TV service that will compete with SBCA members.
DalBello arrived too late to shoulder responsibility for the latest legislative defeat, but he is getting SBCA in shape to flex some muscle.
As Congress becomes more enamored with new communications technologies, DalBello predicts that NAB's bullying days will be over. "Unlike NAB, which spends a lot of time fighting new technologies," he says, "we are in the beneficial position of embracing new technology."