Planet and KSAT Threaten to Pull Ground Station Assets out of Canada (Updated)

The new commercial ground station built by New North Networks sits idle. Credit: New North Networks.

Planet took the opportunity while presenting at the Canadian SmallSat Symposium to deliver a very public ultimatum to Global Affairs Canada. Either there is measurable progress on licensing of their ground stations in Inuvik by June 1, or they will dismantle them and leave Canada. And they weren’t the only company to threaten this action.

Planet is at the centre of an issue that shows how neglected parts of the Canadian government must function with little support and under outdated regulations. Innovation may be the Liberal government buzzword, but it’s hardly equal in how it’s applied.

Both Planet and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) have made investments in Canada but are so frustrated that they had to threaten Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to see if that would provide any action.

The problem?

KSAT, of Norway, a globally recognized ground station infrastructure company has built a privately funded ground station complex in Inuvik. Planet is one of their customers. Another is the European Space Agency (ESA). Because Planet and ESA want to downlink remote sensing data they must obtain a license from GAC as they enforce the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act (RSSSA). That Act is outdated according to an independent review released earlier this year which SpaceQ first reported. The report also concluded that GAC is underfunded and leans too much on the national security side, making it difficult for companies to setup in Canada.

GAC is supposed to complete a review of license applications within 180 days. By their own admission, GAC says this is the first time a review has gone beyond 180 days. GAC is now on day 632 of the Planet licensing review.

Børre Pedersen of KSAT told SpaceQ at the Symposium that the problem is so serious that they had the Norwegian Ambassador to Canada and the Norwegian Prime Minister take up their cause.

Pedersen also told SpaceQ that they too will remove and relocate the ground station they installed for the ESA if their license isn’t approved by June 1. There is irony in that, as Canada has a cooperative agreement with ESA and participates in some ESA programs, including the Sentinel program. Canada has access to Sentinel remote sensing data though that agreement but the ground station in Canada used to downlink the data isn’t licensed or operational. That puts Canada in an embarrassing position.

KSAT’s’ other tenants at their ground station complex in Inuvik will not be leaving. This includes Toronto’s Kepler Communications who have a new ground station. Because Kepler does not deal with remote sensing data, they’re a communication company, their RF license to operate was facilitated by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) in a timely manner. Pedersen also said at least one other customer was looking at locating their ground station in Inuvik, but would not go into details.

GAC for its part maintains it’s doing the best it can with its limited staff. It hopes to have an update on the independent review by the summer. Legislation to update the RSSSA could still be years away before enacted.

Update 4:00 p.m. EST – SpaceQ has learned from Tom Zubko of New North Networks who manage the Inuvik facility for KSAT, that the Planet and KSAT applications were approved yesterday. Zubko cautions though that they have yet to see any documentation related to the approved licenses. Zubko said they are expecting conditions to be attached, conditions that may be problematic. More to follow.

The Planet Podcast

SpaceQ sat down with Mike Safyan, Senior Director, Launch and Global Ground Station Networks at Planet during the Canadian SmallSat Symposium for an in-depth interview.

Planet is an Earth Observation company which has launched a fleet over 200 satellites to monitor the Earth. Planet has become the largest operator of satellites in orbit with 148 active imaging satellites. It should be noted though, unlike the large school bus size communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit, nearly all of Planet’s satellites are microsatellites weighing in at under 100kg and roughly the size of a microwave oven and are in low earth orbit.

Mike and I discussed recent news at Planet with an eye to the future, along with a discussion on their ongoing ground station problem in Canada.

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More stories from the Canadian SmallSat Symposium 2018.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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