‘We’re quite frustrated:’ Red tape threatens growing Arctic space industry

Years of federal bureaucratic delay may cost the North millions of dollars in investment in an emerging high-tech industry.

A Norwegian company has been waiting since 2016 for Ottawa to grant an operating licence for a satellite ground receiving station in Inuvik, N.W.T. The delay has limited services the company can provide to increasingly restive clients and its partner is considering moving.

“We’re quite frustrated with the pace of the Canadian bureaucracy,” said Rolf Skatteboe, president of Norway-based Kongsberg Satellite Services, or KSAT.

Inuvik, on the N.W.T.’s northern tip, is considered a prime location for receiving stations for earth observation satellites. The first station was built there in the mid-2000s by the federal government for RADARSAT, its own earth observation satellite.

Since then, such satellites have become privatized. A 2017 industry report estimated global revenues from earth observation satellites at $100 billion a year, growing at 11 per cent.

Inuvik got into the game in 2015, when KSAT came to town.

KSAT had won a contract from the European Space Agency to receive data from Sentinel satellites, the agency’s premier environmental monitoring program. The company needed receiving stations to complement its installations in Norway’s Svalbard area.

“We looked for a place in Alaska, but since we knew there was ongoing activity in Inuvik, we decided to support the satellite business there,” Skatteboe said.

“It also was part of our decision that Canada was an associate member of the European Space Agency, so we thought it was a good match.”

KSAT — with partner Planet based in California — has seven satellite-reading antennas in Inuvik and plans for three more, for a total investment of $50 million.

For reasons including national security, satellite receiving stations must be federally licenced under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act.

But a report from the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law says that legislation, written when only governments launched satellites, has become outdated.

“This industry is really evolving very quickly,” said Aram Kerkonian, who helped write the report. “The commercialization of space is the direction we’re headed now.”

The act is too restrictive, says the report. It recommends licences be streamlined for ground stations that receive data and send it out untouched. It also says Global Affairs Canada staff on the file are severely under-resourced.

“We spoke with the regulators and it was their position that the resources just weren’t there,” Kerkonian said.

Despite interventions from the Norwegian ambassador and pleas to Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, the licences still aren’t there.

The government is doing its best, said an email from spokeswoman Amy Mills.

“We are aware that this is an important issue both to the company and to the local community, and we work to complete the review process as quickly as possible.”

The company, which can’t operate its antennas without licences, is losing patience.

“Europe is losing data from its flagship series of satellites,” Skatteboe said. ”Valuable data is just being lost.

“We’ve had stations in 21 countries around the world and we’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The head of Planet has suggested his company may just move elsewhere.

Tom Zubko, who owns the company that maintains and operates the receiving station, said the industry keeps six people on the payroll in a city that has seen little economic activity since energy exploration ended. Construction would add more jobs, he said.

“It’s kind of put a big stop to potential developments,” Zubko said. ”It’s very difficult for us now, as a business, to go to other space-based satellite companies and convince them Canada is a good place to put facilities.”

Kerkonian agreed.

“The long-term consequences are that companies that want to do really great and innovative things go to other jurisdictions where it’s clear how they’re allowed to do things and they get their licences on time.”

Skatteboe’s shaking head is almost audible over the phone line from Norway.

“We underestimated the Canadian bureaucracy.”

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