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Regulating satellites ­– small nations report

The approach to regulating satellite technology was the topic for debate as 31 members gathered online on 3 August for the latest Small Nations Regulators Forum. SNRF Chair TIM RINGSDORE summarises

DT Economics

Prior to the main agenda items DT Economics (DTE) gave a presentation on a regulatory effectiveness project that could support SNRF members free of charge.  This project will help identify the different challenges and opportunities SNRF members face compared to larger countries. It will look at regulatory effectiveness in small jurisdictions, and assess best approaches and practices, and how small nations perform against certain criteria.

This project will take several months to complete. It was agreed that forum members would provide as much support as possible once the methodology has been clarified.

The next steps will be for the SNRF Chair and the IIC team to work with DTE on the methodology, construct the assessment framework, reach out to members who are willing to participate, gather the data and conduct the analysis. The project will kick off with a questionnaire once the scope is agreed. DTE were clear that the project would be data-led, available for interpretation by individual nations.

It is anticipated that DTE will provide an update at the SNRF meeting in Cologne, Germany in October, with findings presented in Autumn 2024.

Low orbit satellite services

This is third on the list of subjects that forum members have previously identified as a high priority to discuss, given consumer broadband services are already being provided in some jurisdictions using this new technology.

The range of issues discussed included consumer protection, licensing, legal powers, security and the impact on existing fixed and mobile operators.

Regulation was required but should be undertaken in a way that encourages investment and competition while providing consumers with the best protection possible

It was generally accepted that new and future satellite services presented a number of challenges but also some really positive opportunities for consumers and economies.

Participants agreed that it was important that they keep abreast of new technological developments. Regulation was required but should be undertaken in a way that encourages investment and competition while providing consumers with the best protection possible.

However, most of these services are provided by international organisations such as Starlink and the forum discussed how small regulators should license such services and what powers they may have to address any failures in licence conditions. Michael Byrne, CEO of the Guernsey Competition and Regulatory Authority (GCRA), offered some context for use of Starlink. Take up overall is low, at a few hundred connections out of a total of 34,000.  The main interest is from ICT professionals and those on the network edge. The Starlink spectrum arrangements were overseen by Ofcom in the UK and the full licence details are  available to view on the GCRA website.

Incumbent providers had registered concerns over the historical requirement to have a physical presence on the island. The historical price of broadband in Guernsey meant that the GCRA board considered that an exemption for this for satellite providers was proportionate and in the interests of market competition.

There were some concerns expressed about the issues involved in working with satellite companies, given their unique technology and geographical independence, but most had had a positive experience. In Guernsey, for example, there had as yet been no issues that had to be raised with Starlink directly. This is largely down to the tech-savvy nature of the users. A representative from the Office of Communications explained that in Liechtenstein there was a requirement for licensees to have a presence in the country. In cases where issues with satellite providers arise,  such as where licences do not exist or making contact is proving difficult, he advised Forum participants to escalate matters to the Space Services Department in the Radiocommunication Bureau at the ITU, which is generally very helpful.

There was a general discussion regarding the impact on existing operators and whether the advent of satellite services would restrict further investment in traditional services.  The consensus was that this was not an issue at a time when satellite services were appealing principally to early adopters such as gamers, and consumers who cannot receive traditional high speed broadband services.

The Chair offered to introduce Ian Walden who is Professor of Information and Communications Law, was Director of the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary, University of London and is currently advising Starlink.  Professor Walden would be happy to discuss the various challenges of regulating this sector.

The next SNRF meeting will take place in Cologne, Germany on 17 October.