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Landing Rights: Unlocking the Skies for Satellite Services

The term “landing rights” often features when talking about satellite communications regulation, as an essential obstacle to satellite operators’ business development and ability to generate revenues in key markets around the world. Many of the systems showcased at last week’s SATELLITE 2024 conference will depend upon these rights for successful deployment globally.

At the same time, the concept of landing rights remains an elusive and curious one that is not widely understood:  the term has no universal definition, neither within the texts of international bodies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) or the World Trade Organization (WTO), nor at regional levels where regulators employ various tools for essentially the same concept. In fact, the term “landing rights” does not originate from satellite at all, but from the aeronautical industry, where it refers to the rights given by sovereign states to enable foreign aircraft or carriers to land on their territories.

Defining the concept

So what do satellite landing rights mean? The aeronautical origins give some clue, but there is more to it: they are permission granted by a sovereign state for a foreign-owned satellite - or constellation of satellites - to land signals or traffic into their national territories. They’re a form of national approval, administered by competent regulatory authorities, to enable a foreign satellite’s capacity to be used for broadcast or communication services within their geographical territories.

Landing rights are usually independent of other national authorisations, like the radio spectrum used by ground devices or gateways linking to the satellites, and the sale of downstream services to users in the country (e.g. voice, data, internet access). Depending on the region and the operator’s go-to-market approach, these authorisations may fall on other parties to acquire, such as distributors, local resellers and customers.

Obtaining landing rights, however, is unavoidable for satellite operators with global ambitions, regardless of their business model – whether they wholesale pure bandwidth capacity, or sell hardware and services directly to customers. As a sovereign concept, landing rights also remain separate from the filing procedures of the ITU. While verification of these aspects may be relevant for national procedures, having a foreign satellite network duly registered with the ITU does not remove the need to obtain landing rights within the coverage jurisdictions.

The different approaches

Rules on satellite landing rights originate from when satellite systems were largely owned by national governments and inter-governmental organisations, like Intelsat and Eutelsat. During the 1980s, national governments applied so-called “closed skies” policies that ensured local providers only used capacity from “locally-owned” systems. With the liberalisation of telecoms markets in the 1990s, coupled with the privatisation of satellite systems and the emergence of independent satellite operators, administrations began to authorise non-governmental operators of satellite capacity through “open skies” policies. 

This followed major WTO Agreements on trade and telecommunications in 1997/1998, which saw commitments to abolish measures preventing free selection between all satellite resources, regardless of ownership, for the benefit of market competition, service quality and prices for local users. The increasing demand for connectivity for diverse remote applications further accelerated this shift.

In Europe, the “open skies” principal was adopted into the EU regulatory framework under EC Directive 2002/77/EC, and landing rights were phased-out across the continent. In other regions however, satellite landing rights are still deployed today particularly across South America, and countries in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Regional jargon varies greatly – between a “registration/licence/grant/permit” for a “foreign space object/station/capacity”, and so on.

The procedures and time-frames for granting landing rights also differ, from the more detailed and technical applications (e.g. the US) to more streamlined registrations (e.g. Saudi Arabia).  In terms of regulator fees, taking the Africa region as one example, these can range anywhere from US$20 (e.g. Nigeria) to US$12,000 or more (e.g. Kenya). In several countries, such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico, landing rights must also be obtained by a locally incorporated entity. This means foreign satellite operators must first establish a subsidiary, or contract with a local company or agent – adding yet further costs and lead-times. These local entity requirements are remnants of the national ownership policies of the 1980/1990s.

A changing landscape

While not entirely moving to “open skies”, as mentioned above, various regulators and governments recognise that a low cost, simple and efficient landing rights process retains useful regulatory benefits. Not only does it ensure transparency and vigilance over foreign satellite systems serving their territories, it can also help identify harmful interferences and unlawful use, while ensuring service quality and security for resellers and end users.

For these reasons, countries which had never previously adopted a form of landing rights into their frameworks are now doing so. Saudi Arabia, for example, implemented a foreign satellites registration procedure in 2022. Certain countries with landing rights authorisations already in place are also moving to a more routine registration procedure. Recently, in December 2023, the Argentinian government issued a Decree aiming to abolish the existing authorisation procedure in favour of a simplified, free “prior registration”. This was among a wide range of provisions designed to stimulate market competition and alleviate economic downturn in the country.

Despite significant progress in the last decades, satellite landing rights continue to be an obstacle in many major economies. So, before operators can hope to make a profit from their satellites and deliver a return for investors, they must face the cumbersome task of identifying where landing rights are needed, the procedures for obtaining them in each country, and the time and cost involved in that process.  Leveraging the necessary experience and expertise in this area can help operators navigate these processes and unlock the territorial skies over their target markets.


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