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Is there a blind spot in EU’s approach to developing its satellite sector?

By SOPHIE DONOGHUE

BRUSSELS – Are EU policymakers missing the mark in their telecommunications legislation? According to satellite companies, the union’s industrial policy works against the most efficient use of communications networks for civil security and other applications by overly promoting and subsidising terrestrial technologies such as fibre optics. This overlooks important alternative technology mixes that would improve the networks’ collective ability to handle capacity in the future, they argue.

Satellite industry leaders at the first “European Satellite Day”, launched here on 27 September, said the EU is failing to adequately tap into their sector to boost capabilities that directly support civil security applications. There is a lack of “technology neutrality” in the EU’s strategy for digital communications, they said, arguing that EU tenders and contracts are heavily slanted toward non-satellite telecommunications modes.

With the world’s top four global satellite operators, its two largest satellite manufacturers and the biggest commercial launch service anywhere, Europe has the sector’s leading position. The Satellite Day’s main goal was to improve awareness across the EU policymaker community of the possibilities that satellites offer for Europe’s future communications infrastructure.

“Our sector is worth more than 20 billion euros but despite this, the perception by the EU is not optimal—they don’t quite understand how we can help them achieve their objectives,” Cato Haalsaa, vice-chairman of ESOA, the European Satellite Operators’ Association, said at the outset of the event.

This has led to the sector’s low reflection across policies and legislation, according to “Why Satellites Matter” – a new report by consultancy Booz and Co. Unveiled during the event, it says the satellite sector is positioned to strongly promote civil security applications. Noting that satellite services offer breadth of coverage and capacity for which other technologies fall short of the mark, the study argues that the sector:

  • allows for high data rates at low price. As immense volumes of data will have to be distributed in the future, terrestrial networks will not be able to cope with this alone. Given that satellites are “the best option” for transmitting high-volume data such as imagery, this should be offloaded traffic from terrestrial networks.
  • covers the needs of a very wide range of stakeholders, from maritime to aviation users. Atlanta, the EU’s counter-piracy naval force off the east coast of Africa, heavily relies on satellite imagery –a “secure, robust and flexible” solution that keeps its commanders one step ahead of the pirates,
  • ensures transparent, uncensored and reliable communications for use in conflict zones and is often the only deployable technology available for disaster-related services
  • enables wide-area surveillance of critical infrastructure and the identification of potential threats, thus the most suited to border security and the tracking of vehicles and individuals and biological or chemical clouds.

“One of the great advantages of satellites is that they don’t get taken out by disasters,” observed Halsaa. “Policymakers need to build that resiliency into their civil security planning.”

Noting that the telecommunications needs of rural areas are better served by satcoms than expensive fibre networks, the study argues that satellite services should be combined with terrestrial communications technologies to create “hybrid” capacity scenarios. These would increase efficiency by automatically rerouting traffic away from overloaded terrestrial networks during peak or emergency situations.

Halsaa and other industry executives insisted they were not lobbying for subsidies but for a more even-handed policy approach to all communications technologies. “We’re not asking for money; we’re asking for a level playing field,” said Halsaa, observing that a Eutelsat satellite launched in 2011 cost 350 million euros for which “not a cent came from the public sector, so that is not the issue.”

Paris-based Eutelsat S.A. is Europe’s leading satellite operator and among the top three global ones for the supply of fixed satellite services.

More important, he said the sector’s radio-spectrum allocation “is under attack” from mobile operators. “We cannot compete with them in auctions [for bandwidth assignments of spectrum]. We have to impress upon EU policymakers the importance of keeping this option open for other uses,” declared Halsaa.

Pointing to the EU’s next EUR 80 billion 2014-2020 research budget known as Horizon 2020, Aarti Holla Maini, ESOA’s secretary general, said “there is an assumption within Horizon 2020 that the roll-out of digital services for Europeans means more fibre and spectrum for the telcos [telecommunications companies]. However, more and more data is video – and satcom is by far the most efficient way to handle this.”

 THE UPSHOT: The operators’ call for a technology-neutral mix of communications infrastructures makes sense.
Some 97 percent of all TV cable-feed traffic goes through satellites while 80 million people get their television images from them. Moreover, many of Europe’s numerous minority groups use the so-called C-band to receive cultural information and news from abroad. While this conveniently supports the politically-correct notion of cultural diversity, there is no denying either that ESOA’s argument has a certain self-serving dimension to it – even if it inverses the classic lobbyist’s approach of getting more money for one camp, rather than denying it to the other.
But here too the sector has a point. It may not need public subsidies, but why should Europe’s profitable telcos still get them in the form of national taxpayer support? A majority of Europe’s national telco “champions” are owned or heavily allied with the state, whose revenues have long subsidised the construction of their infrastructures. And the Commission still effectively hands out various subsidies to them by tolerating the excessive charges they impose on the users of their historic networks.

About Sophie Donoghue

Sophie Donoghue was deputy editor and policy analyst at SECURITY EUROPE during 2012-2013 and now freelances for the publication from London. She can be reached at: sd@seceur.info

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