The long-awaited approval of federal licensing for California-based Planet Labs and its satellite imaging station in Inuvik is now over and all we can say is: thank goodness.
For three years — from the time Planet Labs submitted its original licensing application to the federal government to the company’s approval earlier this month — the company has waited and expressed its frustration at the amount of regulatory red tape it had to go through to be able to operate its satellite receivers at the Inuvik Satellite Station Facility, run by New North Networks.
Kongsberg Satellite Services, a partnering company to Planet Labs operating at the ground station, was provided a full operating licence in March and expressed similar frustrations toward the three year wait.
Some serious lessons need to be drawn from the experience, and while we don’t expect the territorial government to hammer signs at our borders or change the slogans of licence plates to ‘Open for Business’ like Ontario appears set to do, we retain the sentiment.
With threats last year by the satellite companies to pick up and move elsewhere due to the regulatory delays — leaving tens of millions of dollars in Northern investment on the table — we ask how serious Ottawa is in fostering Northern economic development when it comes to emerging industries, such as private space technology?
It should be noted that the only reason investments weren’t taken elsewhere was mainly due to geography, as the owners saw an especially large potential to investing in Inuvik, with quality access to near-polar orbiting image satellites that simply can’t be found elsewhere.
The GNWT public-private partnership project with the construction of the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Line to assist in downloading terabytes was also a bonus.
While Planet Labs vice-president Mike Safyan was grateful to be able to finally operate, he didn’t mince words in his frustration about how long the process took. In Space Quarterly magazine, a leading Canadian publication for space advocacy, Safyan called the delay “unprecedented” and unlike any process he has faced elsewhere in the world while setting up satellite relays.
He pointed specifically to the lack of staff and funding at Global Affairs Canada, which oversees licensing as well as updates to decades-old legislation that governs space imagery and data downloading and transferring.
These types of comments from outside investors are not needed in Canada, which is already developing a reputation internationally as a tough place to do business. From our perspective, such comments are especially not needed in the North, which is trying to get the Beaufort Delta working again after a slowing economy in recent years.
In the case of satellite licensing, an environmentally friendly enterprise that ought to be welcomed as a godsend by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government that appears decidedly against local aspirations to develop its oil and gas potential, that lack of urgency is perplexing.
Michael McLeod, Member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories, can claim some credit for getting his government to move on with this project in an election year.
This most recent licensing development, however, comes as many in the North are already frustrated about increasing costs and a complementary five-year moratorium imposed by the federal government in 2016 on all oil and gas drilling off the coast.
Much has been done in the last term by the federal government and GNWT to diversify the economy and make the North attractive to both outside investors and people who live here. However, the Inuvik satellite situation requires a serious debriefing about how it was handled and a look at regulations to accommodate upcoming industries, such as private space technology, that can benefit a territory screaming for investment.