FCC Told Regulations Stifle Global Growth of Satellite Services

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Government regulatory issues are the main culprit stifling efforts to bring satellite communication services to the developing world, according to a number of industry officials at a forum in Washington sponsored by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Satellites are the logical choice for providing Internet-enabled services such as telemedicine and distance learning to third-world countries that lack the required terrestrial infrastructure. But many governments are hindering the spread of such networks, due sometimes to their unfamiliarity with the technology, or in other cases corruption, officials said.

“The technology is easy,” said Kathryn Martin, director of the Washington office of Access Partnership, an international telecommunications consultancy. “The regulatory process can take months. I’ve seen it take years.”

Regulatory problems often are created when government officials do not fully understand the technology, said Rui Lopes, director of network, operations and support for Save the Children and founder of NetHope, an information technology consortium that is working on bringing Internet-based services to developing countries.

Lopes cited NetHope’s efforts to bring satellite Internet technology to Ethiopia, “a government official who didn’t understand the technology was the make or break official in deciding whether or not you get your license,” Lopes said March 21 during the “2005 FCC Satellite Forum: Satellites Services on the Move” in Washington.

NetHope’s efforts in Ethiopia were stalled for so long that the organization gave up and moved its focus onto other African nations, Lopes said.

“Governments, especially in the developing world, are more leery of new things coming in,” Lopes said. “Not many countries that we work in have made it easy for us in terms of Internet accessibility. They are guarded and there are layers of corruption.”

The London-based Global Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) Forum has surveyed many governments and found several examples where regulatory issues have hindered the advancement of satellite technology in, said David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum.

Hartshorn cited the case of a bank in Brazil that had to wait two years to set up a two-site network between Brazil and Paraguay because of regulatory delays.

The government of South Africa is also a major offender, Hartshorn said. The country “wants to be a candidate for business yet it insists on a closed-market approach. The government’s job promotion efforts get stifled because [satellite communication] hubs are leaving and going to other countries,” he said. “Lawyers [inside South Africa] have been very effective in challenging attempts to open the market to outside competition.”

While many parts of the world continue to frustrate efforts to bring satellite networks into their regions, Lopes said some countries are beginning to accelerate efforts to establish new regulations or change their existing policies.

“Countries are beginning to understand they need to provide this or get left in the dust,” Lopes said. “We’ve been in countries where select government officials want all the money, but they still understand the need for satellite services.”

Sheila Donovan, a board member of E-Link Americas, an organization that provides Internet access for remote and underserved regions in the Americas using satellite and terrestrial means, sees progress in Mexico, where the government is promoting distance learning efforts via satellite.

“It’s never easy, and people stumble, but they have done a good job,” Donovan said.

Hartshorn also sees hope in India, where the government recognizes that satellites can be a powerful tool to help advance the government agenda, he said. “India is advancing. There are regulations calling for open skies and a neutral and transparent process.”

Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa also are beginning to put pressure on South Africa and Namibia, another closed market, to open their countries to competition, Hartshorn said.