Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by ASTRA Marketing Limited


  1.  ASTRA is Europe's leading satellite system. Owned and operated by Societe Europeenne des Satellites (SES), based in Luxembourg, ASTRA transmits to over 80 million homes across Europe, including over eight million homes in the British Isles. Digital satellite via ASTRA represents the largest digital television platform in the British Isles, serving over five million households.

  2.  A growing part of ASTRA's business is the provision of broadband interactive services throughout Europe. This system facilitates communications between sites regardless of geographical location. Many broadband interactive users will have a large number of dispersed sites. Others, especially in rural or remote areas, may simply have poor access to other means of broadband type infrastructures.

  3.  Broadband interactive services represent an important step change in technology and we believe that services of this type will be crucial to competitiveness in the future. ASTRA offers users the ability to communicate in both directions to other users regardless of location or access to infrastructure, in the UK or throughout Europe. To join the system, users only require a low cost Satellite Interactive Terminal consisting of a transceiver and a small dish. The system is extremely cost-efficient in use, paying only for the exact amount of bandwidth used and is easily scalable, sites can be deployed quickly (subject to prevailing licence agreements) and integrated into existing networks.


  1.  ASTRA welcomes the Government's publication of a White Paper on reform of the communications industry. The industry moves very rapidly and is constantly adapting to keep pace with changing patterns of demand and evolutions in the understanding and use of new technologies. As a key player in the industry, we want to see the UK achieve the most effective communications sector possible.

  2.  The speed of technological change is such that any system of regulation proposed for this sector must ensure that it is flexible, globally relevant and alert to the competitiveness challenges we all face. We believe that such a system requires a genuine partnership between industry and government, with clear recognition of the roles and responsibilities of each.

  3.  ASTRA therefore very much welcomes the commitment in the White Paper to roll back regulation and, in particular, the proposal to "reduce the regulatory burden upon communications operators by using general authorisations rather than individual licences wherever possible" (paragraph 8.8, page 80).

  4.  Nevertheless, we are concerned that the White Paper may not recognise that the use of spectrum does not always require individual licences, as seems implied in section 8.8.2. To the contrary, there is clear acknowledgement of the numerous decisions of the European Conference of Post and Telecoms. Administrations that make use of spectrum can be exempted from licensing or subject to general authorisations under conditions where there is no risk of harmful interference, which can be accomplished through technical conditions or dedicated frequency allocations.

  5.  In particular, the CEPT has adopted a decision on licensing exemption for classes of satellite earth stations referred to as "VSATs, SITs and SUTs", CEPT/ERC Decisions (00) 03, 04 and 05. These classes of earth stations will be major instruments for delivering broadband services, and we urge that the UK Government expeditiously consider implementing this CEPT decision, as well as including this concept in the results of its White Paper inquiry.

  6.  However, the practical details of the proposals suggest that full implementation of this important new regulatory principle may be several years away. Such a long timescale raises the possibility that the UK will lose competitive advantage by lagging too far behind its European neighbours and other major global communications players.


  1.  ASTRA believes that there may well be instances in which a faster reform of regulatory procedures would be appropriate. While we cannot comment specifically on other parts of the communications sector, our own broadband interactive services represent an example of how faster reform might be secured.

  2.  ASTRA's broadband interactive services are delivered through special terminals called "Satellite Interactive Terminals" (SITs). At present, each SIT must be licensed by the Radiocommunications Agency (RA). In the vast majority of expected cases, licensing will be quick and easy. Nevertheless, an organisation wishing to install a communications network of, say, 200 identical terminals, will currently require 200 applications.

  3.  To date, there have been relatively few licence applications for this new technology. ASTRA and its clients have been able to spend time with RA officials and others to ensure that each application was fully understood, that any issues of detail were addressed individually and that each licence application was progressed as smoothly as possible.

  4.  However, as the technology becomes more widely adopted, licence applications will increase significantly and the "bespoke" approach adopted to date will clearly not be possible. Massively burdensome commitments for ASTRA, its clients and end users of the new services may be created. The RA may face resource issues, particularly as regards time elapsed during the processing of licences. Users may be required to "queue" for licences as a result. The UK's take-up of the technology may be put at risk.

  5.  The individual nature of the current licensing regime for SITs means that future growth of this innovative and highly competitive new technology may be slowed by unnecessary regulatory hurdles. In order to encourage adoption of this new technology, and to ensure the best competitive advantage for the UK, our view is that simplicity and transparency in the licensing process should be confirmed at the earliest possible opportunity.

  6.  While the proposal for general authorisations will help deliver such a process, ASTRA is concerned at the speed of change. There is, at present, no definitive timetable for introduction of legislation to establish OFCOM, the new regulator, and no clear view about the timetable for then bringing in the changes to licensing proposed in the White Paper.

  7.  We have urged the Government to examine best practice in other European countries and to adopt the most rapid and flexible model of licensing available. In common with many others in this sector, we have offered to work with regulators to ensure that such ease of licensing is properly balanced by a duty of appropriate investigation.

  8.  As proposals for OFCOM develop and more detail emerges, we would like to see pilot schemes come into operation, and early changes to existing regulations passed to allow for agreements reached between industry and regulators to come into force prior to the full transfer of powers to OFCOM. Rapid "class licensing" arrangements are one such area where this is possible and desirable.

February 2001

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