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Eliminating Barriers to Satellite Broadband Market Access

The surging number of new satellite constellations deployed globally promises more ubiquitous and affordable internet connectivity for consumers, businesses, and remote communities around the world. It will support the delivery of internet access, telehealth, remote learning, enterprise applications, and on-the-move connectivity in underserved regions.

Yet the ability to access this huge supply of capacity rests on the regulatory clearances to access it from the ground. In many territories, fragmented, overly-complex or outdated regulatory frameworks make it difficult and often result in service rollouts grinding to a halt in key markets. In this instalment of our ‘Spotlight on Market Access’ series, we turn our focus away from the space segment, and towards the user terminals on the ground.

The growing demand for satellite broadband

Recent reports from Northern Sky Research (NSR), the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), World Economic Forum (WEF), and the Global Satellite Operators Association (GSOA) have all highlighted the increasing importance of satellite broadband.

The number of users is projected to double from 250 million to 500 million by 2030, driven primarily by the market for internet access in remote and underserved areas. Most recently, in the Satellite Industry Association’s (SIA) State of the Industry Report 2024, broadband was the standout growth market in 2023, seeing a 27% increase in subscribers. The demand is projected to continue and result in a 60% increase in data usage (in Gbps) between 2023 and 2035, as both consumers and businesses expand into new territories and require mobility solutions.

Against this backdrop, evaluating and securing the regulatory approvals to distribute and operate the user equipment remains an arduous country-by-country task. A satellite operator's multi-billion-dollar constellation can remain idle over large swathes of territory, sometimes for years, due to approvals on the ground being blocked outright, or the adverse regulatory environment outweighing the market opportunity.  

Diversity in satellite terminals

Satellite broadband is delivered through a wide variety of terminals, each targeting different user segments, requirements and applications. These are generally known as “Very Small Aperture Terminals” (VSATs), installed at fixed locations, or on moving assets like ships, land vehicles and aircraft (called “Earth Stations in Motion” or “ESIM” in ITU parlance). Commonly used for enterprise and remote connectivity, VSAT systems provide reliable broadband access via a small dish antenna, making them crucial for businesses operating in isolated locations where terrestrial internet is unavailable. ESIM terminals offer platforms ideal for maritime, aviation, and land mobile applications, ensuring that users and things stay connected regardless of their location.  

Each antenna type can vary in size and operate across different frequencies and bandwidths, based on specific market needs. Such terminals are promising to offer more compact, stable and higher-capacity solutions. The birth of low earth orbit (LEO) mega constellations in recent years, has led to even smaller and more portable broadband equipment, with Amazon’s Project Kuiper touting a user antenna just 30cm in diameter.

Depending on the application, frequencies used, mobility and type of antenna, unique regulatory requirements can apply.  The responsibility for licensing of the terminals can also shift across the value chain, from manufacturer, satellite operator, importer or telecoms service provider, according to the circumstances and jurisdiction.

Regulatory approaches and solutions

As with other satellite services, there remains a huge disparity in national regulations which has impacted the delivery of satellite broadband on a global scale.

In Europe, the regulatory frameworks for satellite communications are relatively streamlined and efficient, largely facilitating broadband deployment and market access through the concept of ‘free circulation’. Under this model satellite terminals that meet defined technical criteria can, with some exceptions, be freely operated without requiring individual licenses in the country where the terminal is operated. This significantly reduces the administrative cost burden on satellite operators, their resellers, manufacturers, and ultimately, the end users that stand to benefit.

The European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications (CEPT) is key to fostering this environment under which ESIM operate and co-exist today.  In particular, the Decisions of the CEPT Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) setting out the operational criteria and conditions across the different bands.  These Decisions, together with the standards of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), serve as the technical bedrock for manufacturers and service providers to address the European market confidently.

Today, no less than 46 countries are members of CEPT, spanning not just European but also neighbouring Balkan and CIS states. However, the CEPT/ ECC Decisions are ultimately non-binding and depend upon national implementation, resulting in variations or deviation. Thus, even in Europe, a country-by-country approach is required, to determine the status, requirements (whether general authorisation or specific licence) and engage with the different authorities.

At the European Union (EU) level, the EC Radio Equipment Directive ('RED') is another key instrument. The RED harmonises the terminal certification environment within the Union, ensuring that Broadband terminals certified in one member state are mutually recognised across the EU. This policy has been instrumental in fostering a competitive market and accelerating the adoption of satellite broadband services in Europe.

In other regions like the Middle East, South East Asia and Australasia, the "class licensing" model is more prevalent. This approach - also known as “blanket licensing” – involves issuing a single license that covers a general type of recognised equipment or service, rather than individual licenses for each identical terminal. Class licensing simplifies regulatory compliance and reduces administrative burden, while stopping short of licence exemption.

For instance, in Australia, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) employs a well-trodden class licensing regime for various telecommunications devices, including satellite terminals. The Radiocommunications (Communication with Space Object) Class Licence allows operators to obtain licences relatively quickly and efficiently for multiple identical terminals, provided they adhere to the general conditions and frequencies set out in the CSO Class License legislation.

Several countries in the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have also implemented class licensing models to facilitate the distribution of broadband terminals.

Africa, and the barriers to market penetration

The situation is particularly challenging across Africa, which is a prime battleground for major LEO broadband constellations. Starlink, OneWeb, Amazon, and Telesat are all chasing the continent's expected biggest growth in broadband demand this decade, yet progress has been patchy across the 54 sovereign African nations.

Two weeks after being rejected for a licensing application in Botswana, SpaceX's Starlink faced an outright ban on sales of its satellite dishes by the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA). The ban was threatened due to Starlink equipment being sold without operating approvals from the national regulator. While the ban has since been lifted, the situation in Botswana was not an isolated incident. Other African countries, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, have also taken measures to crack down on unauthorised broadband terminal use and importation. These actions reflect a broader trend of scrutiny and enforcement in the African market.

Other regulatory hurdles in Africa include a lack of transparent information, high license fees constraining service affordability, terminal-by-terminal licensing (versus blanket authorisation) with the end user often responsible, alongside local shareholding requirements (e.g. South Africa), slow adoption of visiting or temporary terminal policies, and outdated frameworks ill-suited for mobility scenarios.

Some countries like Rwanda and Nigeria have led the way in modernising and aligning with international best practices. Progress has also been driven by organisations like the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) and the East African Communications Organisation (EACO), which have published Recommendations on harmonised approaches to domestic licensing and mutual license recognition of ESIM including type approval . The ATU Task Group recommended that “African administrations should facilitate the use, availability and access to ESIMs and ubiquitous VSATs [and] identify suitable policies and measures to lift regulatory barriers and foster deployment and take-up of these important services and applications just to mention a few”.  However, similar to elsewhere, such measures have no binding effect on member countries and their overall adoption. 

Until a more concerted harmonisation emerges across the region, the socioeconomic benefits of satellite broadband connectivity will remain bottle-necked and sparser than their digital policy makers may wish for: Africa is one such region in need of satellite broadband and the socioeconomic benefits it can unlock. At present, with the constellations ramping up, the regulatory disparities stand to be the main road-block to digital modernisation and development.  

There is no doubt that regulators in the region, and globally, are working to resolve these issues and overcome challenges through measured solutions.

River Advisers has been assisting both operators and regulators on framework modernisation initiatives and we see a future for continued regulatory harmonisation.

Moving forward

While regional blocs like the EU and other developed nations like Australia have adopted ‘free circulation’ and ‘class licence’ models to help nurture deployment of satellite broadband ecosystems, progress has lagged in many developing markets. The economic case for reform is compelling: satellite broadband promises sustainable development by creating new jobs, boosting productivity, and enabling access to online education, and telehealth services. But outmoded policies are clearly restricting competition and take-up of new technologies.

As innovative satellite operators look to connect the unconnected, it’s vital governments move swiftly to modernise licensing regimes. Adopting more flexible, pan-continental policies and low-fee blanket licensing is critical to ensuring consumers and businesses can access the transformative benefits of satellite broadband.


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