Not complimentary nor receiving compliments: the use of “complement”
Oct 15, 2018 by Manuel R. Marti


TagsEuropean Comission, Inmarsat, MSS, ViaSat

A legal ruling is expected any day now in the UK instalment of the long-running Viasat/Inmarsat battle over MSS spectrum. It all turns on the most confusing word in the english language…

Whether it’s fair and fare, maid and made or band and banned, we often find ourselves stumbling over homophones. In case you don’t remember, homophones are two or more words having the same pronunciation, but different spelling and meaning.

What seems like child’s play at first, these words have contributed to the grammatical mistakes we inadvertently make every day. And in the spectrum world, a linguistic tussle has ended up in court.

In November last year, ViaSat took UK telecoms regulator Ofcom to court because they granted Inmarsat authorisation for the ground components of mobile-satellite service (MSS). Under the original licence –created through a pan-European process for choosing operators of MSS systems– S-band spectrum was expected to be used for satellite-based rural broadband services but it is now being used in an emerging new market: onboard WiFi for aircraft

it is unclear whether a complement is the smaller part, or whether both parts contribute something and relative size is irrelevant

ViaSat, the Californian satellite company, has already filed legal complaints against the European Court of Justice and the Belgian, German, Italian and Hungarian telecoms regulators over the issue.

The European Commission’s decision, issued ten years ago, was controversial because it allowed operators to use complementary ground components (CGCs) – terrestrial base stations – as part of their satellite network.

And PolicyTracker understands that dispute seems to turn on the meaning of a single word: “complementary”.

In the dictionary complementary (kɒmplɪˈmɛnt(ə)ri) with an “e” means combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasise the qualities of each other or another; complimentary (kɒmplɪˈmɛnt(ə)ri) with an “i” means either free of charge or praising and approving.

Complementary and complimentary are often used indistinctly and we frequently mistake their meanings.

To add further to the confusion, complement is related to the word complete. And it is unclear whether a complement is the smaller part, or whether both parts contribute something and relative size is irrelevant. Viasat think the ground component should be smaller than the satellite component, Inmarsat think relative size is not the issue.

What T.S. Elliot called “the intolerable wrestle with words and meaning” is a high stakes game: HSBC predicts the in-flight broadband market will grow to $5bn by 2025 from $700m in 2015.

The UK tribunal will deliver its ruling shortly, though we don’t know if that will be days or weeks. So what are the lessons? European legislators should certainly beware of homophones, but maybe we will learn  something else as well.