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Regulatory Review: Interactive Satellite Dishes–The Smaller The Better

By | January 1, 2003

      by Gerry Oberst

      Historically, a substantial amount of satellite services have been based on either a small number of customers relying on two-way distribution links using very large antennas, or on one-way, receive-only services aimed at many customers with relatively small antennas. To make the next big leap in markets, however, satellite networks in the Fixed Satellite Service arena have to combine the two major types of service. They need to become interactive, small-dish networks for a large number of customers.

      VSAT networks already provide interactive links, but typically use antennas at least several meters in size. To reach the broadest number of consumers and expand the enterprise market as well, the industry is striving to break into the small, interactive dish market, using terminals 90 centimeters in diameter or smaller (about 3 ft. across or less). While the marketing opportunities are huge with this type of equipment, the regulatory issues can (as usual) be daunting.

      To get a grip on these issues and jumpstart the discussion among European regulators, the European Commission put this topic on the agenda of the first meeting of the Radio Spectrum Committee in Brussels in late October 2002. That committee was set up under the package of new legislation known as the electronic communications framework. The radio spectrum committee will focus on important, controversial or upcoming issues in the radio spectrum field, especially on issues that cross national boundaries in Europe.

      Top spectrum regulatory officials from the 15 European Union (EU) member states, joined by some of the new "accession" countries awaiting EU membership, attended this first meeting of the committee.

      The satellite industry presentation received a short 25-minute slot, during which the new European Satellite Operators Association introduced itself and noted the significant contributions interactive satellite dishes can provide. The Satellite Action Plan Regulatory Group (SAP REG) chairman then described the nature of the interactive satellite networks and their spectrum needs, as well as regulatory opportunities to cut red tape within the new framework.

      By its very nature, said SAP REG, interactive services will provide pan-European opportunities using satellite capacity already in place. These services depend on small terminals and high-capacity, two-way communications for both fixed and mobile applications. The satellite companies are targeting both business and consumer markets, and will both compete with and complement existing terrestrial or other wireless services.

      Recognizing that the radio spectrum committee focuses on frequency issues, SAP REG also noted that the satellite industry needs long term, assured access to frequencies with a high level of certainty that those allocations will not be changed in any of the countries within the satellites’ footprints. Spectrum allocations should happen in a way that does not require members to coordinate the use of frequencies–with small antennas and mass markets, the cost of separate coordination would be prohibitive. In addition, the industry needs coordinated support from regulators at ITU radio conferences to ensure optimal allocations in the future.

      To put the new European regulatory framework in the satellite context, the SAP REG emphasized how the package favors innovative services and pan-European systems, promotes harmonized radio spectrum and creates a presumption for using general authorizations or blanket licensing, instead of individual licenses for each interactive terminal.

      In addition, European regulatory decisions that exempt classes of interactive satellite terminals would greatly help the satellite industry. This approach, if adopted widely across Europe, would expand the use of interactive services.

      Nevertheless, European regulators often prefer to rely on the trusty tools of licensing to avoid risks of harmful operation. Thus, regulators routinely express concern regarding large networks of lightly regulated interactive terminals. To counter these concerns, the industry noted the steps that satellite companies rely upon to operate safely.

      For example, the terminal design must include standards for electromagnetic compatibility and guidelines for health exposure to non-ionizing radiation. To ensure correct operation, operators rely on professional installation of interactive terminals, among other techniques, to confirm they are not too close to airports and will access the correct satellite. Through these and other tools, interactive satellite dishes can provide a safe and competitive alternative to terrestrial services–and the only connection in many places where wires will not reach.

      The European Commission now waits for details on the costs of regulation, including licensing, as well as potential revenues from satellite networks. This information could help demonstrate to governments that licensing procedures and fees are too cumbersome and costly. It is now up to the satellite industry to be "interactive" with regulators, as well as customers, to demonstrate that regulatory barriers should come down so marketing opportunities can aim for the sky.

      Gerry Oberst is an attorney in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. He serves as the chairman of the SAP REG and presented the industry viewpoint on interactive dishes to European regulators in October 2002.

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