Michael Byers is holder of the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
Thirty large satellite dishes crown a mountaintop on the Svalbard archipelago, just 1,200 km from the North Pole. Owned by the Norwegian company KSAT and linked by fibre-optic cable to mainland Norway, it is the largest and most northerly commercial ground station in the world.
The Norwegians have partnered with Planet, a California company which produces imagery that can be updated on a daily basis for clients in agriculture and other industries, allowing changes on the ground to be analyzed in real time. Planet has more than 130 satellites in polar orbits, most of them launched within the past two years. Ground stations for downloading data from polar orbits are optimally located in far northern or southern latitudes.
Last summer, KSAT and Planet built a new ground station in Inuvik, which is located north of the Arctic Circle and – thanks to $100-million from the government of the Northwest Territories – has a new fibre-optic cable for carrying data to southern Canada.
But the new station in Inuvik is not operating – because of foot-dragging by bureaucrats in Ottawa. Planet recently threatened to dismantle the station and rely on facilities in other countries.
Having KSAT and Planet abandon Inuvik would seriously damage Canada's reputation as a home for space-related business, at a time when the industry is expanding rapidly worldwide.
Space-related activities generate $1-trillion in annual revenue. From reusable rockets, to miniaturized satellites, to the potential mining of asteroids, these are revolutionary times for technology and commerce in space. Many countries are competing with new regulatory regimes and subsidies to attract and develop cutting-edge space companies.
Canada, however, is not one. Indeed, since 2015, the federal government has allowed Canada's two largest space companies – Com Dev and MDA – to become U.S.-owned companies and has now allowed a third company, NorSat, to be sold to a Chinese company without even a national-security review.
Astonishingly, bureaucrats in Global Affairs Canada are now demanding that Planet obtain a license for all of the satellites that would be transmitting to the Inuvik ground station. They are doing so despite the fact that the satellites are already licensed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the fact that most countries recognize foreign licenses for the purposes of commercial data downloads.
Planet tried to comply, submitting an application in June, 2016, to have all of its satellites licensed in Canada. But the federal government has been ragging the puck since then, refusing even to inform Planet about progress on the file.
The delay is almost certainly because of a poor fit between Planet's satellite operations and Canada's 2005 Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. The act was designed for RadarSat-2, a single satellite built, owned and operated by a Canadian company with $500-million in federal government support.
Back in 2005, RadarSat-2 was cutting-edge technology of considerable usefulness to Canadian and allied militaries. Ottawa wanted control over the imagery and, as a result, the act requires detailed information from prospective ground station operators, including on the satellites transmitting data, their obits and inclinations, the systems used for downloading and processing the data, as well as intended uses and users.
These requirements are anachronistic today. Planet is launching hundreds of small satellites annually. The sensors on board are impressive but not unusual: Many other commercial satellites produce equally good images. Planet's competitive advantage comes from the ability to produce new images of the same locations every 24 hours.
Moreover, Planet builds, launches and operates its satellites from outside of Canada. The Inuvik station would simply be a transfer point for moving data between two parts of the company: a satellite in space and an office in the United States.
The situation is analogous to the mid-20th century practice of U.S. commercial airliners refuelling in Newfoundland and Labrador while flying to Europe. Canada did not insist on licensing those aircraft; it relied on licenses issued by the United States.
Fortunately, there is an easy way out of this mess. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister has the power to exempt "any person or remote sensing space system" from the application of the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act, provided no harm to national security would result. Imagery that is available on the global market from numerous companies is self-evidently not a threat, or in any case, not a preventable one.
Canada's reputation in the global space industry is already suffering. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland can begin to repair that damage, today, with just one stroke of a pen.