In recent years, satellite communication has been drastically changed by regulatory reform and technological advancement. The regulatory environment and technological advances have influenced satellite communications both structurally and content-wise. Competition in network and services development has led to advances in satellite technologies. Technological improvements in telecommunication systems have brought about lower cost digital services. Meanwhile, satellite communications facilitate the free flow of information while creating a national sovereignty conflict over global communication.
National Satellite Regulations
In the past, satellite regulations in most countries were dictated by their domestic communication policies. National satellite regulations focused on who could provide services and in what markets. Since the 1990s, governments have liberalized satellite communication regulation, opening up the market to new players and promoting universal services. Such governmental liberalization of satellite regulation has two goals: (1) increasing competition through a blanket licensing policy, and (2) open access through an open skies policy.
The blanket licensing policy, which was proposed by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the 1990s, facilitates licensing of the maximum number of systems, with minimal interference. It allows regulators to configure certain classes of satellites on the basis of technical criteria that eliminate the risk of unreasonable interference. This regulation has streamlined licensing procedures and provided a wide variety of business opportunities for the telecommunications industry.
The open skies policy provides licensees maximum flexibility in operating their systems to meet market demands with minimal regulation. In the past, governments developed policies to protect their own satellite systems. These closed skies policies required service providers to use only locally owned satellites when providing satellite services. However, regulators realized that the massive demand for data, voice, video, and other convergence services is best addressed by permitting open access to all satellite resources. While domestic satellite regulations are still not entirely open, they permit more access to orbital resources, regardless of where the satellite operators are based.
International Regulation of Satellite Communication
The current changes in international satellite communications have been driven by competitive global markets and technological capabilities. The major goal of the two largest international satellite organizations – Intelsat and Inmarsat – has been to eliminate unnecessary regulatory barriers that tend to inhibit the use of satellite services. Intelsat and Inmarsat have consistently applied competition as a policy to increase competition in the global market. As the key objective of communication reform is increased efficiency, competition and cooperation are two tools available to policymakers to achieve this goal.
Meanwhile, a series of international efforts have been launched to improve satellite regulation in developing countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America. Such efforts include initiatives by the European Radio Communications Office, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). For example, the WTO prohibits member countries from imposing certain types of quantitative restrictions, economic needs tests, or local incorporation requirements. Some WTO member countries have undertaken additional pro-competitive measures, which are designed to prevent anti-competitive conduct, ensure nondiscriminatory and cost-oriented interconnection, and administer universal service obligations competitively.
Despite several open border initiatives by Euro-American countries, the Asia Pacific nations show little concrete effort to harmonize the use of spectrum and licensing policies and regulations. In Korea and Japan, for example, satellite communications have been hindered because of separate licensing (or sometimes duplicate licensing) requirements for satellite service providers, space segment operators, end-users, and radio spectrum. Many regulations in these countries focus mainly on technical issues, such as technical coordination and avoidance of system interference, and few regulations focus on international satellite interoperability or interconnection.
In Africa and Latin America, satellite communication regulations entail a multiplicity of authorities and application forms. Licensing and renewal fees are high and approvals involve considerable delays. Besides, lack of transparency, requirement for bilateral and interconnection agreements, and security and trade issues remain challenges to satellite policy and regulations.
With the proliferation of satellite communications, content regulation has emerged as a major concern. While the FCC only applies indecency regulations to over-the-air broadcasting, a discussion is under way in the US to propose to broaden broadcast indecency regulations to cover satellite communications. For example, satellite radio in the US so far has been unregulated in its content. Under its current regulatory status, satellite radio remains free of content restrictions due to its subscriber-only structure. This regulatory status can be compared to that of HBO or the Playboy Channel on cable television. With such a comparison, satellite radio has a completely unlimited ability to dictate content and include material that would be deemed indecent or obscene on traditional radio.
Traditional radio has the right to play music without paying royalties to performers. In exchange, the FCC has the right to restrict the content of radio broadcasts. Despite these content regulations, which seem to be a violation of the First Amendment, these restrictions are permitted and have steadily expanded throughout the twentieth century. On the other hand, satellite radio companies in the US paid almost $200 million for their airwaves and pay more royalties for music, but there are no content limitations. As the audience of satellite radio grows, the FCC is considering content regulation of satellite radio.
Internationally, the degree of content regulation varies from country to country; however, the majority of industrialized nations regulate obscene and/or objectionable content. In Europe, indecency regulations are now extended to satellite communications, which did not previously have as many restrictions. Interestingly, the content regulation of satellite broadcasting in Europe is related to the structural questions of how much market share satellite communications have, how much of a threat the satellite industry is to broadcasters, and what impact the satellite industry will have on the media market.
The degree of content regulation (i.e., how strict or how liberal) largely depends on non-content conditions, such as economic availability and technological advancement. What is most notable about content regulations is that those regulations are based on a new principle of “technology neutrality” in the US and the EU. According to technology neutrality, content would be regulated on content itself, irrespective of the underlying technology used to deliver it. Thus, satellite services would be regulated just like broadcasters, as regards indecency, violence, and hate speech.
In developing countries, content regulation issues are more a matter of content management (i.e., restrictions or quotas on content, cultural invasions, right to access, and copyright) than actual content-related regulation (i.e., content censorship). In Africa and Latin America, satellite television is delivering popular Hollywood programming to national audiences through national television services. While foreign programs via satellite broadcasting are often criticized for diluting local cultural identity, many African and Latin American countries allow audiences freedom of choice, respecting the universal freedom of access to content, instead of banning foreign programs via satellite.
Free Flow of Ideas Versus National Sovereignty
With the advent of global satellite infrastructure, the globalization of communications has undermined national sovereignty. The “satellite spillover,” which happens when the signal falls outside the beam pattern’s defined border of coverage, challenges national sovereignty – the right of every country to license the provision and use of telecommunications within its borders. Sovereignty has historically been protected by means of a license, fees, local conditions, and procedures.
The world is dividing into two opposing camps. The US and the EU nations, which support free flow of information, base their argument on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, customary law, and the International Telecommunication Convention. They argue that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. They oppose any interference with this right to impart information through any form of media.
On the other hand, other less liberal countries (mostly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) support national sovereignty and turn to customary law, the United Nations Charter and UN Resolution 110, and Resolution 37/92. Under this view, Article II of the United Nations Charter grants strong deference to the interests of national sovereignty, including cultural, religious, social, and economic interests. To protect these interests, these countries prefer strict regulation of content and sanctions for nonconforming communications. The free-speech countries like the US and the UK view this state intervention as little more than government-sponsored censorship.
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