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Canada losing out on satellite business due to antiquated regulations says, space entrepreneur

Stone-age regulations on how satellites can operate are holding back Canada’s space economy, according to a local satellite hosting company.
A large satellite dish mounted on one of Inuvik Satellite Station’s mounting towers. Canada recently reviewed its regulations on satellite use in 2022 and found they were overdue for major changes. Eric Bowling/NNSL photo

Stone-age regulations on how satellites can operate are holding back Canada’s space economy, according to a local satellite hosting company.

After getting approval from Inuvik Town Council to expand the Canadian Satellite Ground Station Inuvik (CSGSI), New North Networks owner Tom Zubko told Inuvik Drum Canada’s regulations on what can and cannot be observed from orbit are outdated and causing the country to fall behind other Northern economies, such as Norway.

One of the issues, Zubko said, is it causes problems with some potential clients. There are certain parts of the world they are not allowed to collect data from or distribute that data. “For example, you know, there’s some parts of the South China Sea. There are some parts of northern India in Kashmir, there’s Ukraine, which was embargoed. Kind of hard to tell what’s going on there now,” said Zubko.

“So in order to comply with those regulations, there has to be some very complicated software to prevent those areas from having data from being downloaded or it’s gotta be embargoed. It’s out of step with the rest of the world.”

Written in 2005, the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act was oriented to a time when space was largely the domain of governments. Zubko said in the past two decades that has shifted to space being largely the domain of commercial ventures.

The global theatre has changed dramatically since the legislation was written as well. Back in 2005, much of the world was still catching up with the world technologically and top of mind for governments in North America was preventing terrorism. Consequentially, laws enacted at the the time limited who in the public could view what using satellites to prevent rogue players from using public data for violent ends.

But in 2023, anyone who can afford it has their own satellite network and preventing criminals and other dangerous actors from getting photos or other data from space is effectively impossible. Zubko said most of western world has accepted this reality and updated their regulations to allow satellites to operate freely, but Canada’s rules are lagging behind.

As Canada’s Arctic is ideal real estate for bouncing signals off satellites, Zubko cautioned that the global space market is developing fast and if Canada didn’t get on board with modern regulations quickly, a huge economic opportunity would be passed by.

“Legislation needs to be brought into sync with the rest of the world,” he said. “It used to take 10 years to get a satellite concept off the ground and put into space on a good day. Now it takes three months. So if licensing is taking you six months and building the satellite takes three months, there’s a bit of a problem there.

“You can put in 10 ground stations in other jurisdictions which are less desirable from a geographic point of view, but you can do it in three or six months. You can’t be taking years to put it into Canada and expect to be competitive no matter how good your geography is.”

Canada has reviewed the regulations roughly every five years since it was enacted, with the most recent review of the act in 2022.

That review compared Canada’s regulatory scheme with other jurisdictions, notably the United States, Japan and Germany. The U.S. only updated its own regulations in 2020 after a lengthy process, though the new regulations prioritize business competitiveness over national security.

“These changes to the U.S. regulations stand in marked contrast to the Canadian approach. Canada continues to focus on mitigating national security risks as much as possible – and in practice, this comes at the expense of the Canadian remote sensing space industry. The U.S. example should serve as a wake-up call and driver for Canadian regulatory reform,” reads the review.

Japan has similar regulations to Canada but takes a different approach, putting authority right in the hands of the prime minister, protecting the government from liability and only applying regulations within Japanese jurisdiction — Canada’s regulations apply to operators of Canadian satellites abroad as well. German regulations are applied in a two-layered fashion, with the data supplier ensuring the data being requested isn’t sensitive.

The findings of the review largely reflect Zubko’s concerns.

“Dramatic changes in space remote sensing technology and business models, especially in recent years, mean that the risks the RSSSA is intended to mitigate are, in large measure, no longer meaningful,” it reads. “The controls imposed by the RSSSA on Canadian remote sensing space systems can be safely reduced.”

About the Author: Eric Bowling

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