To the delight of American satellite makers, communications satellites -- which orbit Earth to relay phone calls, link ships to shore and broadcast television programs -- will become legal for civilian export under legislation that President Obama signed into law on Thursday.
Although the United States founded the industry, manufacturers were forced to pull back from international markets after a 1999 law categorized the satellites as weapons and restricted their export. At the time, Congress was fearful that selling satellites abroad could allow technology secrets to fall into the wrong hands.
The defense bill that President Obama signed will undo that step and let American companies sell communications satellites as civilian technology rather than as deadly arms. Among the beneficiaries will be companies like Boeing, Hughes and Space Systems/Loral.
"This is a tremendous assist for an industry that is inherently international," said Patricia A. Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association, a business group in Washington. "It will ensure our place at the forefront of space."
As a practical matter, communications satellites made their debut in 1964 and quickly became stars of the space age. The first craft, orbiting at 22,300 miles, relayed signals to the United States from Japan that let American television viewers watch live coverage of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
But the industry stumbled 13 years ago after Republicans in Congress pressed for a law that restricted communications satellite exports. The lawmakers praised it as a security precaution that would prevent China and other perceived foes from stealing technology secrets. Detractors saw it as a cynical ploy meant to discredit the Clinton administration and its policy of Chinese engagement.
That law put communications satellites on Washington's list of export-controlled munitions: tools of war like tanks, bombs, missiles and equipment for making nuclear arms. Foreign companies took the opportunity to increase their satellite sales.
The new law gives Mr. Obama the authority to return communications satellites to their previous status as civilian technology. It retains provisions that restrict the export of satellites to nations like China and North Korea, and to sponsors of state terrorism like Iran.
Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, who introduced a bill to change the policy on satellite exports and whose state is a space industry hub, said the measure offered satellite manufacturers a crucial lift.
"Companies across the country have been operating at a disadvantage due to these policies," he said in a statement. "These reforms will give our businesses a chance to compete globally while still protecting our national security interests."
The strict export controls arose from a political fight over satellite launchings by China, which in the 1980s began offering cheap rides into orbit on low-cost rockets. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, both Republicans, approved transfers of American spacecraft to Chinese rockets, as did President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
Starting in early 1998, a series of upsets brought the expanding trade to a halt. Two American satellite makers involved in the Chinese launchings, Hughes and Loral, were accused of giving China advice about making not only commercial rockets, but also military missiles.
Republicans, who controlled Congress at the time, argued that satellite exports could lead to a hemorrhage of secret materials and information, and said that China might already have stolen encryption secrets.
After the strict export rules took effect in 1999, the legal complications involved in selling communications satellites and components abroad contributed to a sharp decline in the American share of the market, from a dominating position to about 50 percent today.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said the rules had "unduly hampered the competitiveness of the domestic aerospace industry" and vowed to push for change.
Representative Howard L. Berman, Democrat of California, who for a decade helped lead the movement for change, said its culmination as law would help restore the nation's competitiveness in the global satellite market.
"Treating commercial satellites and components as if they were lethal weapons, regardless of whether they're going to friend or foe, has gravely harmed U.S. space manufacturers," he said.
Mr. Berman added that the benefits extended beyond the manufacturers. The national security establishment relies on the companies and their technological skills to fulfill the government's satellite needs and to develop spacecraft involved in a wide range of military missions.
"If they can't compete in the international marketplace," he said of the companies, "they can't innovate and cannot survive."science
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.