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No one can hear you scream for funding in space – especially if you’re a satellite operator

, September 22, 2013, 0 Comments

Europe’s satellite operators provide services which bring real benefits to communities around the world. But it’s an industry which fears it’s losing out to more “visible” forms of infrastructure.

Forget bricks and mortar: satellites are the type of infrastructure the modern world just can’t live without. And it’s not just about cable TVs and mobile phones.

Satellites provide communication capabilities in search and rescue operations, they deliver utilities to energy networks and financial markets, they can help track and enforce fishing and agricultural policies.

In fact, the European satellite industry reckons those little white boxes floating around the earth provide EU member countries with 30 billion euro worth of socio-economic benefits per year.

Yet while politicians pay lip-service to the importance of Europe’s satellite services, both operators and industry observers agree that infrastructure you can see and touch – like cables and fiber – are widely seen as something more worthy of government support.

“Satellites are a very marginalized voice,” says Bruce Winhelt, head of Telecommunication Industries at the World Economic Forum, an independent economic advocacy group. “It’s a little bit ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ I think, because you don’t necessarily hold a satellite in your hand, but you hold a mobile phone in your hand.”

Europe’s satellite operators, represented by the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), agree the industry has a perception problem in Europe.

“These days, everyone’s got a smartphone, an iPad, and every gadget you can think of,” says ESOA secretary general, Aarti Holla. “Whereas space is pretty far away. So we are a technology that people take for granted – half of the time they don’t know that they are using it.”

Thinking big

The low-profile nature of satellite technology can also lead to operators being left out in the cold when funding decisions are to be made.

It’s small wonder, then, that the industry used this week’s Satellite Day initiative in Brussels to hammer home its technology’s ability to deliver EU policy priorities.

In particular, satellite operators want to be seen as an integrated part of the European Commission’s “Connected Continent” effort to create a single European telecommunications market.

“We have one thing that no other technology has, and that’s global reach,” says Patrick McDougal from European satellite company, Inmarsat.

“You could see satellites as the most democratic infrastructure of them all, because we cover deserts, oceans, mountains as much as we do cities and hinterlands. So, when a telecommunications structure is not there or has been damaged, satellite communication is really the only default that’s left,” says McDougal.

That simple message – that satellites can deliver real social benefits – was the theme of Satellite Day.

Environmental activists spoke about ways in which satellite data can be used to develop and implement conservation projects, by revealing how land is used in remote areas.

Meanwhile the European Commission urged participants to engage with the policymaking process and to bring big ideas to the table.

“Let’s use the technology [you have developed] as part of our foresighting,” said Ann Glover, the chief scientific advisor to the European Commission. “Let’s use it as part of our political decision making, and to be able to open up opportunities for us.”

Talking trash

Yet satellite technology isn’t all good news.

The problem of space debris – chunks of metal and discarded satellites orbiting the earth – is one that the industry has to confront. And perhaps the issue is being used as leverage against the industry when it calls for more recognition and cash.

There are now strict international standards in place to ensure that operators don’t add to the problem. But space debris is also a reminder to policymakers that getting satellites into space, then getting them back down again, can be an expensive proposition.

“What we have at the moment is something like 6800 tons of mass in orbit,” says Heiner Klinkrad, the head of the Space Debris Office with the European Space Agency. “Satellites can be ripped apart [by the debris]. Fragments are produced and that can cause more catastrophic collisions.”

The solution? Getting European institutions to fund an expensive clean-up, in which chunks of metal are yanked out of orbit.

Moves like this don’t come cheap.

And the satellite industry takes issue with the penny-pinching of European leaders, arguing the services they provide are of great strategic importance.

“We underpin the entire European space sector,” says ESOA’s Aarti Holla. “Yet at the same time we are constantly forced into a position of defending how we use our spectrum. There is more to it that that. One has to take a holistic approach.”

Source: Deutsche Welle |