EU Commission denies fiber bias in coming regulations

January 31, 2017

The European Commission is crafting broadband deployment goals that satellite industry officials say are fiber-centric and do not encourage satellite deployment. The commission disagrees and says it understands that fiber will not reach rural areas anytime soon. Credit: European Commission

The European Commission is crafting broadband deployment goals that satellite industry officials say are fiber-centric and do not encourage satellite deployment. The commission disagrees and says it understands that fiber will not reach rural areas anytime soon.

Credit: European Commission

BRUSSELS — Draft European regulations on broadband deployment are focused on fiber deployment to the exclusion of satellite connectivity, satellite service company officials told European regulators.

In arguments echoing what their U.S. counterparts have been telling the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for years, satellite industry officials said the European Commission’s connectivity goals presume that fiber one day will reach all European homes — a financially impossible dream, they said.

A commission official flatly denied the charge, saying the satellite sector has always been too quick to see insult where none is intended and that satellites’ importance in delivering broadband to remote areas is understood. 

“I know something about the sensitivities of this industry,” said Pearse O’Donohue, director of future networks at the commission’s DG-Connect, which is leading the commission’s broadband deployment policy effort.

“If it [the satellite sector] doesn’t see the actual word ‘satellite’ mentioned, then there’s a problem. That’s your problem. The commission’s approach is that we do not favor any technology.”

O’Donohue was addressing concerns addressed publicly and privately here during the Jan. 24-25 European Space Policy conference about the commission’s gigabit connectivity package, issued last autumn, which will inform a telecommunications directive expected to be issued this year.

Eutelsat: A fiber bias makes it difficult for us to invest

Rodolphe Belmer, chief executive of satellite fleet operator Eutelsat, said the commission’s broadband plan does nothing to incentivize investment in satellite systems, despite the commission’s recent space policy document. 

“We need to find some coherence between European policies, notably in telecommunications,” Belmer said.

“Later this year, a new set of directives is going to be issued by the commission regarding the plan to bring high-speed internet to European citizens. The very simple concept of technology neutrality is not even mentioned anymore. The directive is completely focused on fiber deployment.”

Eutelsat is the third-largest commercial satellite fleet operator by revenue. It has launched a satellite, called Ka-Sat, for consumer broadband access but disappointing results have recently led it into a joint venture with ViaSat Inc. of the United States.

The joint venture agreement has not been finalized, but if concluded it is likely to result in a large, terabit-per-second broadband satellite launched over Europe within three years. The satellite, called ViaSat-3, is one of two being built by ViaSat and Boeing Satellite Systems. 

ViaSat’s satellite technology is designed to operate with a ViaSat-provided ground network and user terminals.

Implicit in Belmer’s remarks was the fact that if Eutelsat could not close the business case for its own terabit-per-second satellite, then the principal consumer broadband satellite over Europe for the next decade would be American-made, with a U.S.-provided ground segment. 

Eyeing Eutelsat-ViaSat, Thales Alenia Space calls for all-European network

European manufacturers do not like that idea. Jean-Loic Galle, chief executive of satellite builder Thales Alenia Space, urged the commission to take steps to assure that a European broadband-everywhere policy is delivered by European hardware. 

“I would like the European Commission to launch a strong European initiative to cope with the digital divide,” Galle told the conference. “We have all the capabilities in Europe. No one in this room imagines that when China launches its own [broadband] initiatives — and I can tell you they will launch it in the next two or three years — that they would use European satellites. They will use a Chinese satellite. I strongly urge Europe to use a European satellite system.” 

Satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg has been less enthusiastic about the satellite consumer broadband business case in Europe than Eutelsat, but company Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh agreed with Belmer that European policy needed to be open to all technologies. 

DG Connect: We know satellites may be sole solution in rural areas

“The policy has to be very clear about remaining technology neutral,” Sabbagh said. “If the policy boxes us in by saying that the answer for a particular application is a particular technology, it’s going to restrict innovation.”

O’Donohue said the commission’s policy does not favor one or another technology. He agreed that the policy highlights broadband speeds — around 400 megabits per second to each residential connection — that might seem fiber-focused, but said these goals do not apply to rural areas.

“Looking forward, we are hoping to have speeds even in remote areas of 100 megabit per second,” O’Donohue said. “The terabit-per-second satellite technologies that the industry is now working on, despite our efforts at fiber roll-out, will in some cases be the only player able to provide that in rural communities. For that to happen, the satellite community has to be part of the discussions.”

Peter B. de Selding