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Converging Broadband Services

By | August 1, 2007

      Convergence of services, platforms and technologies has been a theme in the communications industry for more than 10 years. The satellite industry now needs to focus on how the latest evidence of convergence affects its regulatory responsibilities as well as marketing opportunities.

      Recent high-level conferences on the impact and meaning of convergence in the communications industry may not have mentioned the satellite sector, but the impact on satellites is being felt.

      The International Telecommunication Union co-sponsored such an event in Geneva in June with the European Broadcasting Union with the theme of “content delivery platforms in a converging world.” The role of satellite services was mentioned in passing — satellite is acknowledged as an option for delivering digital media, with references to direct-to-home satellite broadcasting as one prevalent means for content delivery. But no satellite companies were represented among the many speakers, and if there is a special role for ubiquitous satellite networks to serve large international regions, it was not evident from the conference.

      Similarly, the European Commission sponsored a June conference on Internet Safety in Luxembourg with one of three concurrent workshops focused on the impact and consequences of convergence of online technologies. To the extent this workshop discussed communications infrastructure at all, it focused only on mobile terrestrial.

      Nevertheless, many of the concepts expressed in these events apply to services supplied by satellite operations and could help assess future market and regulatory directions.
      Among the many presentations, a paper from the Geneva event identified many aspects of the convergence phenomena, pointing to convergence of technologies, services, within firms and among consumer perceptions, and occurring in markets. These aspects affect the satellite sector as much as any other platform. Satellite infrastructure has broken the ground for digital services in areas such as digital broadcasting. Technology and service convergence is happening as satellite operators and service providers extend into other broadband platforms in response to market demands.

      Examples of this convergence in Europe include BSkyB’s acquisition of the terrestrial broadband provider network Easynet, and the European Commission’s recent consultation on authorization of mobile satellite services (MSS) networks that will be integrated with terrestrial network components — called complementary ground components (CGC). The Commission received close to 40 comments by the end of May, many discussing how to regulate the national CGC infrastructure for a pan-European MSS network.

      One insightful quotation at the Geneva conference noted, we are moving from the “information society to the interaction society.” Satellite operators and service providers are working as fast as they can to develop more interactive services and get closer to their customers.

      Implications of this interactivity, however, bring us back to the Luxembourg conference with its focus on ensuring the safety of new interactive services. As satellite operators and service providers extend broadband services to their customers they also must consider the rules and risks that travel along with these services.

      The classic “answer” for satellite infrastructure providers when confronted with problems arising from content transmitted over satellite networks has been that they are only neutral conduits with no responsibility for content. The “mere conduit” argument still holds sway, but challenges from new broadband services will increase the liability and responsibilities of both network and service providers. Confronted with issues of child safety or threats to network security, law enforcement and policymakers may place some heavy responsibilities on the infrastructure and service providers alike. Even conduits can have requirements for “notice and take down,” that is, to block content once they are informed of illegal material.

      Already, higher standards for retaining traffic data and responding to law enforcement are being implemented in Europe for all communications network providers, which will apply to satellite operators that provide broadband links. Moving from standard direct-to-home service to interactive broadband will expand this obligation. So too will integrating CGC and satellite lead to more exposure to law enforcement requirements. One approach discussed at the Luxembourg event is to require all elements of the communications industry to certify the safety of equipment and services to protect children in the new broadband environment, which could drag satellite infrastructure into the rules.

      It was not evident that anyone from the satellite sector attended the recent European convergence events. Maybe they should.

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