North

3-year wait for licences may finally be over for Inuvik satellite station

Satellite companies have been using an interim station in Antarctica as they wait for the Canadian licensing process to play out for an installation they built in Inuvik almost three years ago.

‘This is the first significant step forward since the start of this process almost 3 years ago’

The Inuvik satellite ground station in Inuvik. Two foreign operators may soon receive an interim licence to operate the receivers they built there almost three years ago. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Two foreign satellite operators may soon receive an interim licence to operate the receivers they built in Inuvik almost three years ago, which would allow them to stop using a receiver station in Antarctica.

For more than two years, U.S. satellite company Planet Labs Inc. and Norway's Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) antennas at the Inuvik satellite receiver ground station have sat unused as the companies wait for federal licensing from the Canadian government.

But this week, significant progress was made.

It's kind of crazy but it's easier to get a ground station up and running in Antarctica than it is in Canada.- Mike Safyan, Planet Labs Inc.

"Planet and GAC [Global Affairs Canada] are discussing the details of a provisional licence for the Inuvik ground station as an interim solution, which would allow the antennas to begin operations much sooner than expected," said Mike Safyan, a vice president with the company, on Tuesday.

Mike Safyan, a vice president with Plantet Labs, said the company and the federal government are discussing the details of a provisional licence.

He said this will be a significant step in the right direction, although he noted it's been a frustrating experience so far to get federal licences for six satellite dishes.

Last February, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) — the department responsible for authorizing radio licences needed to operate fixed Earth stations in Canada — approved the companies' licence applications.

However, approval from Global Affairs Canada is also needed since the installations, part of what's called a remote sensing space system, will be operated by foreign companies. This, Safyan said, created unique circumstances in the licensing process. 

He said Norway's Kongsberg Satellite Services owns the teleport and some of the ground station assets, and although Planet has a Canadian subsidiary, their antennas are on KSAT's facility and they are controlled from mission operations in the U.S.

"So that's presented some questions from [Global Affairs Canada] … unfortunately we've been the guinea pig for them figuring out that process," Safyan said.

While the companies have been waiting to use their antennas at the Inuvik ground station they've been using a ground station in Antarctica.

"It's kind of crazy but it's easier to get a ground station up and running in Antarctica than it is in Canada."

'Black spot on Inuvik'

New North Networks is the the manager of the Canadian Satellite Ground Station Inuvik (CSGSI) where the satellites are located.

Owner Tom Zubko said provisional licences for both companies would be a good step forward, but "we really need the process to get to the finish line where they have fully issued licences. This is the first significant step forward since the start of this process almost three years ago."

Without doubt Canada has the most obscure licensing process — anywhere.- Tom Zubko, New North Networks

Zubko says Canada has a regulatory problem, and international satellite technology companies are looking elsewhere to invest because of it.

"Without doubt Canada has the most obscure licensing process — anywhere," said Zubko.

Zubko estimates that were it not for licensing delays, Inuvik could possibly have doubled the number of satellite dishes it hosts.

Tom Zubko, owner of the company that manages the Inuvik satellite ground station, said the delays experienced by Planet Labs and Kongsberg Satellite Services are a black spot on Inuvik's reputation. (David Thurton/CBC)

"We've got a real big black spot on Inuvik right now from the point of view of going out and trying to get more people to come to Inuvik," Zubko said. "Inuvik has a huge potential in this business if we can get the licensing … sorted out."

In response to a CBC request for comment on criticisms leveled against the regulatory process, Global Affairs Canada stated in an email that the vetting process takes time and includes a "national security check," but it expects to "finalize the licence applications shortly." 

"We welcome and are working to support the development of the satellite industry in Inuvik which offers important opportunities for economic development for the town and for the Northwest Territories as a whole," the statement said.

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