State Of U.K. Space Activities

By | September 1, 2007 | Europe, Government, Via Satellite

The United Kingdom House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has issued a review of the country’s space policy. The 158-page report, released in July, assesses the space sector and recommends that the government take a “strategic approach” to a limited set of space activities.

The report is a comprehensive source of information on the country’s activities in space and also gives political support to a continued focus on satellite initiatives. Nevertheless, it disappoints some in the industry and science field who are calling for the creation of a U.K. space agency to replace the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which is a “partnership” among nine government departments and research councils with no budget of its own and, according to inputs to the committee, a fairly moribund profile both nationally and internationally.

The United Kingdom devotes about two-thirds of its budget for space to the European Space Agency (ESA) rather than national projects. Yet the contribution is so low compared to its gross national product and to contributions from other major European member states that the U.K. funding has been described as an “anomaly.”

Among contributors to ESA, the United Kingdom ranks a distant fourth compared to France, Germany and Italy. Those three nations also maintain national space agencies with responsibilities for space programs and larger budgets.

The parliamentarians believe that so long as the United Kingdom maintains its current levels of space expenditures there is no point to establishing an agency to manage national policy, and the report does not contain a forceful call for greater budgetary effort in the space arena. Instead, oft-repeated phrases call for an emphasis on ensuring “value for money” while avoiding “prestige projects.”

There is recognition of the space industry’s contribution to the economy. The most recent analysis shows that industry is relatively healthy and growing, contributing more to the economy than software publishing. With spillover effects, the space industry contributed 5.2 billion British pounds ($10.5 billion) to the economy, or close to 0.4 percent of gross national product.

The report noted ongoing efforts to review licensing of satellites by the United Kingdom. Pointing to lack of clarity in the rules, the high costs of required third-party liability satellite insurance and the general burdens of regulation, the parliamentarians expressed concern over the current licensing regime. The BNSC may hold a consultation later this year about the system, which the report welcomes.
The report also discussed regulatory issues in a short section on telecommunications and broadcasting by satellite. This sector dominates U.K. revenues from space activities and accounted for 85 percent of downstream industry total in the 2004-to-2006 period. Moreover, the committee was told that due to developments in Internet service, broadband, multimedia, mobile and digital broadcasting technologies, the satellite communications industry “is set to experience significant growth in the coming years.”

Thus, it is curious that the report gives that sector a very short two pages of attention. Also, the only strategic directions the report recommends involve activities such as robotic exploration, satellite navigation and Earth observation and does not mention satellite communications.

Nevertheless, the parliamentarians paid close attention to claims that “U.K. satellite operators are facing challenges created by the inconsistent application of regulations internationally and the U.K.-centric focus of Ofcom” — the national regulator. The report states it is important for the government to support the space industry in this sector and recommends that the government work on the European level to ensure consistent standards of regulation across Europe. It calls on Ofcom to “take the views of satellite operators regarding the international impact of its activities into account.”

Two other activities that could affect the satellite sector also are under way. The government is in the midst of a comprehensive spending review that will affect budgets for space policy, and a BNSC consultation launched in January to assess strategy for 2007 to 2010 should come out by the end of the year. The last BNSC space strategy called for the United Kingdom to become “the most developed user of space-based systems in Europe for science, enterprise and environment.”

Parliamentarians are calling for a more coherent and focused way to achieve that goal.

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