“You shouldn’t do things differently just because they’re different. They need to be… better.”Elon Musk
It was welcome news that SpaceX and its Starlink Internet from Space services offering had earned a Canadian licence referred to as a Basic International Telecommunications Services (BITS) licence to provide telecom services low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.
But, not so fast. This BITS licence apparently does not give Starlink the right to provide service to Canadians – no matter how keen Canadian customers seem to be to buy it.
Getting a BITS licence is not exactly the highest hurdle there is to clear (most are approved with no fanfare) and no, possessing that licence does not mean Starlink will soon start serving Canada).
“The Commission notes that a BITS licence does not by itself authorize an entity to operate as a facilities-based carrier or non-facilities-based service provider. All entities who provide services as a facilities-based carrier must at all times comply with the appropriate regulatory framework, including the ownership and control requirements of section 16 of the Act and the Canadian Telecommunications Common Carrier Ownership and Control Regulations. Entities who provide services as a non-facilities-based service provider must register as such with the Commission and comply at all times with the appropriate regulatory framework,” reads the Commission’s letter.
Starlink has made public statements saying it wants to serve rural and remote areas with broadband delivered via LEO satellites, initially in the northern United States and Canada, with plans to expand globally. On Sunday, October 18, SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink satellites, which was the fourteenth satellite launch for the Starlink constellation, says a SpaceX Twitter post. According to some estimates, Starlink will need 4,000 satellites in orbit to begin service and even when it gets to 12,000 satellites it will only be able to serve less than 500,000 subscribers in North America at 100 Mbps. The data rates from Starlink’s fleet of LEO spacecraft are a finite and shared resource, as are all public internet connections from every provider. So while 1 Gbps sounds exciting in the media hype, it has yet to be seen or proven that this rate can be sustainable for every customers. Is it just a best effort data rate? Or, is it simply the gross capacity of the the connection to all users within the footprint? Time will tell.
So, Starlink’s service still needs to acquire spectrum to operate in Canada. Will that be a serious hurtle to overcome? Maybe not. The bands that it is pursuing at not currently overloaded with users, so there seems to be room for them technically. But, politically, it may be a very different story.
The CRTC application made by Starlink to operate in Canada was vehemently opposed here. The CRTC received 2,585 interventions regarding the licence application. Many of the interveners were individual Canadians living in rural areas of the country who support the application. Many others opposed the service, led by Canada’s incumbent carriers interested in protecting their turf. Regardless, this is an extraordinary number of comments for the regulator to duly consider.
The regulator has approved the BITS as a first step towards potential full approval, but the CRTC must be very concerned about the strongly opposing views held by many Canadian companies and citizens for whom it regulates the telecommunication landscape.
Getting Canadian spectrum and meeting the Canadian ownership and control regulations might be challenging for Starlink. It will likely need a Canadian partner to front the services here and who owns a majority stake in the Canadian offerings. Will Elon Musk agree to this model?
The CRTC is not about to sell out and allow an offshore operator to disrupt the domestic market and the substantial domestic investments already made by the Canadian incumbent carriers. But, it is not enough for the Canadian major incumbent carriers to simply complain about Starlink’s invasion to Canada when they have repeatedly failed the rural and remote communities over the past decades. If they truly want their complaints to be respected by the commission, then they will need to be competitive and provide adequate coverage to these un-served and under-served customers.
There are a lot of smaller, private carriers who have worked very hard and invested millions to try to serve these rural and remote markets. They need to be respected too. Such as my friend, Samer Bishay (above) who owns and operates ICE Wireless and Iristel.
Therefore, the CRTC has a big challenge ahead to allow innovation, while being politically smart and responsible to all Canadians. They are walking on a tightrope with this decision. Let us have faith that they will act in the best interests of Canadians as a priority and leave the politics aside, but this may be wishful thinking on my part. The pros and cons for Starlink are seriously polarized and this may be a no-win decision for the Commission regardless of which way it decides on Starlink.
Sevunts, L. (2020). Canadian regulator greenlights Elon Musk’s satellite internet plan. Radio Canada International 2018, Retrieved on October 21, 2020 from, https://www.rcinet.ca/en/2020/10/20/canadian-regulator-greenlights-elon-musks-satellite-internet-plan/
Unknown. (2020). Starlink’s BITS licence approved, still needs spectrum to operate in Canada. Cartt.ca. Retrieved on October 21, 2020 from, https://cartt.ca/starlinks-bits-licence-approved-still-needs-spectrum-to-operate-in-canada/
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.