Federal delays 'canary in a coal mine' for Inuvik's satellite industry, says company director
Planet Labs' recent satellites are talking with a station in Antarctica instead of a new Inuvik station
Planet Labs, a U.S. satellite company, launched 88 small satellites into space in February. By now, those satellites should have been streaming data through a newly-built ground station in Inuvik.
Instead, they're hooked up to a Norwegian-owned facility in Antarctica.
Mike Safyan is Planet's director of launch and global ground station networks. He told CBC that onerous federal regulations are to blame.
"We've installed in over a dozen places around the world in different countries and administrations," Safyan said. "Canada is unique in that it is the only country we have dealt with that has additional remote sensing reviews that are separate from the radio frequency reviews that are frequently done as a normal course of business."
Planet's satellites are remote-sensing devices; they map the earth in great digital detail. As such, communication between those satellites and any proposed ground stations in Canada fall under rules and regulations outlined in the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act.
Under the terms of the act, Global Affairs Canada reviews any licensing application that involves remote sensing satellites.
The review is for security reasons, but the open-ended nature of the review means commercial companies have no timetable for when their licence might get final federal approval.
Safyan said the rules make Canada the most difficult country in the world in which to get a remote-sensing application through the regulatory approval process. Referring to installations in Norway, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Germany, and the U.S., Safyan said that Canada is the only country that requires a federal review beyond standard radio frequency licensing.
"That fact that we could get approvals at Antarctica and get something up and running in time to support the launch [and] we have still yet to hear from Canadian regulators on Inuvik, speaks volumes as to the mismatch in timelines," Safyan said.
'Canary in the coal mine'
The market for this data is growing, and so too will the demand for more ground station hubs. Existing facilities eventually get saturated with clients. As new companies come forward, or established companies expand, they launch new satellites and demand for ground stations increases.
"Looking at all the different announcements and companies being created, there is going to be a very big demand for satellite downlink."
Safyan said the company still hopes it can work through regulatory delays with the federal government, but the world is watching and delays like those faced by Planet in Inuvik could hamstring the growth potential for the industry in the community.
Inuvik's ideal northern location and infrastructure — including the recently completed Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link — count for a lot, but if the rules are unmanageable, that could trump Inuvik's strong points.
"If the regulatory process is prohibitive, then commercial companies do need to think twice about that," he said.
"This does act like a bit of a canary in a coal mine."
Sandy Kalgutkar, deputy secretary with the N.W.T. Department of Finance, said the territorial government is aware of the companies' frustrations with the process.
"I think the issue is that the current act and regulations … have not been refreshed and need to adapt to the current environment that this industry is now in," Kalgutkar said.
Kalgutkar added that Robert C. McLeod, the territory's minister of finance, is in Ottawa and is expected to raise the matter with federal counterparts, including Northwest Territories Member of Parliament Michael McLeod.