Inuvik ground station
A ground station Planet built in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. The station remains offline because a Canadian government office has yet to grant a license after months of delays. Credit: Planet

TORONTO — Stymied by extended regulatory delays, Planet is planning to remove a ground station it built in Canada if it does not receive a government license for it by June.

Speaking at the Canadian SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 13, Mike Safyan, senior director of launch and ground stations for the San Francisco-based company, said Planet was still waiting for the Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to decide on a remote sensing license the company needs to operate a ground station it has at Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Planet filed the application with GAC in 2016 for the facility, which was completed early last year. However, the agency has yet to rule on the license application, keeping the company from using the station to receive data from its constellation of Earth imaging satellites.

“If our GAC license has not been granted by June 1, which would mark the two-year anniversary for waiting for a license,” he said, “then we’re just going to pack up and move those antennas.”

Planet has been caught in an unusual regulatory situation. The company applied for, and received, a radiofrequency spectrum license from another ministry, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. However, it also needed the remote sensing license from GAC even though the satellites that will use the ground station are already licensed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

GAC has not been forthcoming regarding the reasons for the delay. “We’ve spent a lot of time with GAC, trying to get our application understood,” Safyan said. “The process is incredibly opaque. It’s very rare that we get any meaningful feedback from GAC.”

Planet highlighted the licensing problem last summer. “It’s been a series of no updates since then, and that’s been a real challenge for us,” he said in an interview after his presentation.

A spokesperson for GAC did not go into details about Planet’s application last July, saying only that the government’s licensing process “is thorough, involves consultation among multiple government agencies, and includes vital assessment of national security considerations as well as commercial issues.”

Kelly Anderson, deputy director of space policy and regulatory affairs for GAC, did not address Planet’s application during a separate panel discussion at the conference Feb. 13, and declined to discuss it in an interview afterwards. In the panel discussion, she emphasized the importance of regulating remote sensing systems for foreign policy and national security interests.

She also noted her office is very small. “My section is understaffed and under-resourced,” she said, a conclusion she noted was from an independent review of Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act performed last year. Three licensing officers work for her on these issues, she said. “We’re not a big group of people.”

Without a license, Planet is now considering other options for a ground station at high latitudes that enables communications with individual spacecraft on multiple passes each day. Safyan said it’s working with KSAT, who partnered with Planet on the Inuvik ground station, to identify alternative locations.

One option is the Norwegian islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, which already hosts a number of ground stations. “Norway is incredibly business-friendly when it comes to this kind of thing,” he said. “They know how to deal with ground stations.” Another option, he said, is near Fairbanks, Alaska.

Separately, Planet is removing from Canadian jurisdiction its five RapidEye satellites, which it obtained when it acquired BlackBridge in 2015. Those satellites were licensed by GAC at the time, but Planet has also licensed them through NOAA.

“There’s been an inability between GAC and NOAA to come to a bilateral understanding of each other’s licensing process and recognition of each other’s licenses,” Safyan said. That’s led to disagreements about which agency has “ultimate jurisdiction” over those satellites on issues like shutter control and what customers the company can serve.

“It seems like this is the right time to show the Canadian government that there are consequences to continuing to operate under these outdated regulations,” he said.

Even with the change in RapidEye licenses and a potential closure of its ground station, Safyan said Planet will retain an office in Lethbridge, Alberta, that employs 20 people. It also continues to work with Canadian commercial and government customers of its satellite imagery.

Safyan said he hopes this will encourage the Canadian government to reform its remote sensing regulations to make it easier for Planet and other companies to operate in the country. “Canada, we love you, but you’ve got to fix your remote sensing regulations,” he said.

Planet has support in its licensing effort from Canadian industry groups, like the Canadian Space Commerce Association, as well as the Space Advisory Board, an independent group that in an August 2017 report noted the need for regulatory reform. One of the members of the board, Gordon Osinski, offered during a discussion after Safyan’s talk to help raise the profile of the problem with the government.

Safyan said the company appreciated the support, but added that may not be enough. “When the picture of antennas being torn down in Inuvik ends up on the front page of SpaceNews, I think that will get people to wake up,” he said. “We really hope we don’t get there.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...