European Satellite Operators Applaud Broadband Plan

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BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan — European commercial satellite fleet operators on Oct. 19 cheered a European Commission move to get European Union (EU) members to use regional development funds to spur broadband development in rural areas.

In what may be a case of seizing on small signs in hope of bigger things to come, the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) applauded the commission’s report on regional development, which used the word “satellite” only once, and then only after all other relevant technologies were listed.

The commission’s policy statement, “Regional Policy Contributing to Smart Growth in Europe 2020,” urges the 27 EU nations to “consider how to better use the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to accelerate achievement of the EU 2020 objectives for broadband access including total coverage, making use of the different technologies (fiber, ADSL [Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line], wireless, satellite) available to suit the diverse geographical needs and challenges of different regions.”

For ESOA, even this slight recognition of satellite broadband’s potential represents progress at the Brussels, Belgium-based commission.

ESOA members have long lamented the fact that government-backed broadband rollout in Europe often treats satellite technologies as risky and expensive. They have also said the way European Commission and regional government grants and loans are structured inherently favors local construction projects such as laying fiber cable. These financial instruments are often ill-suited to leasing satellite capacity or subsidizing the purchase of consumer satellite terminals, satellite company officials say.

In its document, dated Oct. 6, the commission says less than half of the 2.3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) in broadband development funds that are part of the EU’s 2007-2013 financial plan have been allocated, and that more effort should be made to educate local governments on what funds are available, and in what form.

ESOA Chairman Christodoulos Protopapas said the commission’s statement “marks a breakthrough in how the commission has so far tackled the question of the digital divide.”

In its statement, ESOA said commission officials attending a recent workshop on bridging the digital divide showed new receptivity to satellite technologies, insofar as the cost per home in rural areas can be much less than comparable terrestrial wireless technologies.

“[S]atellite equipment is eligible for EU funding, a fact that many regions are still not aware of,” ESOA Secretary General Aarti Holla said in a statement. “In addition, it’s a solution available today that can contribute to fast commitment of structural funds.” Holla said she hoped the European Union will follow the example of the United States, whose broadband stimulus package earmarked specific funds for satellite broadband.