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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by ASTRA Marketing Limited


  In light of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's inquiry into communications, ahead of the draft Bill this year, I am writing briefly to outline the role of satellite and to highlight some issues that may be of interest to you.

  As you may know, ASTRA is Europe's leading satellite system. As well as transmitting over 1,000 TV and radio channels to over 89 million homes across Europe, ASTRA offers fast, secure transmission of Internet Protocol based video, audio and data applications direct to homes and businesses. The ASTRA Broadband Interactive (BBI) service, now commercially available, provides two-way broadband connectivity via satellite giving users both receive and transmit capabilities.


  ASTRA welcomes the general direction of the Government's policy development process from the Communications White Paper, through to the current OFCOM Bill and the forthcoming draft Communications Bill. We believe that, together, these present significant opportunities to simplify and enhance the UK regulatory regime, to promote rapid take-up of new digital services and advances in technology and to put the UK in a very strong position, internationally.


  Satellite technology addresses several key policy objectives simultaneously. ASTRA provides comprehensive geographic coverage in the UK, with virtually 100 per cent of the population able to access digital satellite television services. With the arrival of ITV on digital satellite in November 2001, alongside the existing services of BBC1, BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5, digital satellite now delivers the full range of free-to-view services, without the need for a subscription. With ASTRA's nation-wide coverage, the satellite platform will therefore be a vital element in delivering the digital switchover timetable.

  Satellite will also help close the "digital divide" between urban and rural areas by providing access to services in areas where traditional cable or terrestrial services (such as ADSL) are unlikely to be available in the medium term. Furthermore, the flexibility of satellite services are such that a very wide variety of local, community and specialist channels (including, for example, minority language, regionally-relevant and ethnic interest programming) can be delivered to audiences anywhere in the UK. Newer, broadband, services which are now becoming available will further enhance this offering and will help UK businesses improve their local and worldwide competitiveness through access to fast, efficient communications networks within organisations, between businesses and in relationships with customers and suppliers.


  However, while satellite has a key role to play in assisting the UK to develop its communications networks and services, it is important that the Government understands and supports moves to improve the regulatory regime we face. The policy development process described above does not exist in isolation and "joined-up" government means that departments should seek to address the communications agenda in its entirety when developing new policies and refining existing ones.


  For many years, satellite dishes have been subject to an anomalous planning regime which is the product of regulation not keeping pace with technological development. For example, it is permitted to erect on a dwelling a very large terrestrial aerial atop a five-metre pole. Yet, in certain circumstances (eg in conservation areas or on listed properties) planning consent is required to erect a satellite dish measuring only 65cm in diameter at its widest point.

  The DTLR recently announced that it would begin a review into this anomaly. ASTRA welcomes this, but is concerned that such a review may take several years to produce a change in the law on general permitted development. This will hinder the take up of digital services delivered by satellite and does not represent a "level playing field". We would urge a speedy resolution and simplification of the rules to improve access to new technologies in the UK.


  Two-way services to and from satellites are increasing in sophistication and relevance to businesses and consumers. For many, these will provide the possibility of secure and rapid transfer of large amounts of data. For others, they will enable new ways of working and new ways of delivering services and entertainment, cheaply and efficiently across wide areas to targeted audiences. In remote and rural regions, satellite will be the only infrastructure that can offer true broadband connectivity.

  To encourage early adoption of these innovative opportunities progress must be made on equipment licensing. Currently, the Radiocommunications Agency operates a system which requires individual consents to be granted for the installation of two-way satellite receiving and transmitting equipment (known variously as VSATs, SITs or SUTs). Because there have, to date, been relatively few license applications for this new technology applicants have been able to spend a great deal of time ensuring all license applications have been fully understood and progressed smoothly. As the take-up of interactive services expands rapidly, however, this bespoke approach to licensing will be unsustainable; it will discourage adoption of new technology and place the UK at a competitive disadvantage. Indeed, it is with the higher capacity transmission equipment, where commercial interest amongst potential users is highest, that the longest delays on licencing will occur. Equipment licensing must therefore match current technology as delays for licencing on these transmitters could run into weeks.

  Many European Governments have already recognised that individual licensing regimes are a barrier to innovation. End user terminals comply with Digital Broadcasting Video Group (DVB)/European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) standards and they operate in spectrum bands exclusively allocated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Best practice in the rest of Europe is for a simpler, more streamlined and less bureaucratic licensing system. Holland recently became the fifth EU country to implement the European Radio-communications Committee (ERC) decision on exemption from individual licensing, following the lead of Italy, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg. The other three Scandinavian countries are expected to follow suit.

  In the Communications White Paper the Government proposed to roll back regulation and to "reduce the regulatory burden upon communications operators by using general authorisations rather than individual licences wherever possible". ASTRA believes that, if the UK is to lead in digital communications, and maintain a competitive edge, early progress on licensing must be made.


  The technology exists today to transform large parts of the country from analogue to digital technology simply and efficiently, and in a way which offers platform neutrality. For those in communal housing, whether public or private, this technology—the Integrated Reception System (IRS)—offers low unit cost conversion, which would benefit some 4.5 million households across the UK. IRS offers residents in communal homes a full choice of access to both analogue and digital terrestrial services, digital satellite, FM and digital radio.

  As well as being an issue of consumer choice, delivery of digital services into communal housing would significantly improve the proportion of households with access to digital services and contribute greatly to ensuring that the switchover target date is met. By promoting choice of platforms and broadcasters amongst their tenants, social and communal landlords can also play a part in combating the risk of creating a digital divide.

  The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has worked closely with industry to produce an informative leaflet on IRS for communal housing. Clearly, the implementation of IRS communal reception systems will require resource from landlords across the UK and ASTRA would encourage government to go further in supporting these initiatives. With almost one in five UK householders living in communal housing, access to digital services for these residents will be critical if the 2006-10 timeframe for switchover is to be met.


  ASTRA currently carries around 40 smaller TV and radio services from specialist broadcasters to audiences throughout the UK. These comprise both pay-tv and free-to-air channels and are part of the multi-channel attraction of the satellite platform. We continue to support and encourage our customers providing such services. In any future policy developments on communications, especially as regards access charges or licensing fees, ASTRA believes that it is particularly important to take account of the effect on specialist channels.


  Last year, the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry undertook a consultation on radio spectrum management, headed by Professor Martin Cave. The "Cave Review" is due to report shortly and, from our discussions with the Review team, it is possible that a form of "greater autonomy" for the UK may be recommended, possibly including less adherence to international agreements on spectrum use.

  This presents very serious policy and practical problems for satellite operators, since our services are not broadcast solely to the UK. ASTRA's fleet, for example, covers most of Europe, currently from three orbital positions. Once designed to take account of existing transnational agreements, spacecraft cannot be reconfigured or adapted. It is doubtful that the economics of satellite operation would be sustainable in countries not supporting these transnational agreements.

  Satellite companies have invested billions of pounds over decades to bring leading-edge high technology services to UK and European consumers and businesses. Such an investment of time, money, research, manufacture, design and innovation has been made possible in part by a clear recognition by national governments that there is a unique case for international co-operation in allocating spectrum to satellite use.

  ASTRA believes that a decision by the UK to alter or attempt to alter the core transnational agreements on spectrum allocation for satellite within Europe would do serious damage to the industry in this country, in Europe and globally. Specifically, any move towards market testing, auctioning or otherwise redefining the small band of spectrum frequencies currently assigned to satellite across Europe could have a potentially disastrous effect on the economics of the industry and the continued delivery of services and innovation

  I would urge you to consider carefully how the UK can successfully pursue "joined up government" on communications issues, especially in relation to satellite technology which, with its nation-wide coverage, offers the best way forward for delivering a digital Britain.

  Finally, I hope that this note has been informative. If I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

24 January 2002

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