While EU countries like Germany are investing in satellite internet connections to provide connectivity in hard-to-reach places, Slovakia has decided not to do so, at least for the moment. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.
A functional and accessible digital infrastructure is one of the priorities the EU has for member states. To achieve EU goals, households across the bloc should have internet access at a speed of at least 100 Mbit/s by 2025. In Slovakia, approximately 867,000 homes, or about 40% of the population, currently have access to internet at this speed.
Germany is looking into speeding up internet access in rural areas by providing financial assistance to those who offer wireless internet connections via satellites or directional radio, Reuters reports. The ministry confirmed the payment would cover technical equipment and monthly internet costs for up to 200,000 households.
EU is slower
Although Europe is a global leader in satellite operations as it is home to the headquarters of three of the industry’s major players, Eutelsat, SES and Inmarsat, the EU is so far slower when it comes to investing in the technology.
In January, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told the European Space Conference that his goal is to “move quickly” on this technology.
“It was adequate for the Commission to submit a proposal to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU this year so that we can proceed concretely,” he said.
At the time, the Commission had already set up an expert group of European satellite manufacturers, operators and other related service providers to examine whether and how a European space communications system was feasible. The first study should be completed by the end of this year.
Starlink could become a monopoly.
The Starlink project – for which the US government has set aside $856 million to cover broadband satellite internet in rural and hard-to-reach areas – had up to 1,635 small satellites active in May in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which operates Starlink, wants to ensure almost every corner of the world, including most of Slovakia, is provided with internet by 2022.
But SpaceX is not the only company interested in operating satellite internet at a large scale. Amazon and Viasat, as well as many smaller companies, are interested in satellite internet. In Slovakia, six companies offer this type of online connection, according to the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) database.
Lack of regulation in Slovakia
However, according to the Slovak broadband coverage plan, which the government finally approved at the end of March after several months of negotiations, satellite internet “does not meet the (specific) criterion, so we no longer consider the technology.”
According to the latest strategy for building a high-speed internet connection, the main disadvantages include “limited maximum number of users that can be covered in one region, high latency, as well as signal propagation time to and from the satellite, which may restrict the use of certain applications”. Weather conditions were also cited as obstacles.
Regulation and state oversight are also lacking when it comes to satellite internet, the telecommunications experts added.
The frequency band on which satellite internet operates is left unregulated. Control is challenging because Starlink operates at frequencies between 12 and 18 GHz and 26.5 to 40 GHz, while other satellites – including military, meteorological or astronomical ones – operate at the same frequencies and can thus interfere with each other.
The experts also pointed out that it is not yet known what protocols are used for mutual communication between the satellite and the receiver, making it unclear who can replicate and read such transmitted data.
The lack of regulation also poses the risk that private companies like Starlink could monopolise the frequency spectrum. The company, which has thousands of satellites in orbit, can easily control the sector manufacturing receivers. The antennas, which can receive signals, can only be manufactured by a limited number of producers with specific know-how.
Expanding the number of satellites could also impact stargazing.
Astronomers claim that with Starlink, the number of visible satellites will exceed the number of visible stars. Planning of scientific observations will be seriously affected because Starlink satellites can change orbits autonomously, they added. In Slovakia today, hundreds of Starlink satellites can be seen with the naked eye at night when the sky is clear.
Many astronomer organisations and associations have already communicated their concerns on several occasions and through different means, but so far to no avail. Starlink assures that it will adjust the surface of its satellites so that they do not reflect sunlight to an extent that would hinder the observations. However, the changes have been minimal so far.
The EU is also concerned about taxation. If the satellite internet market continues to be dominated by US companies as is currently the case, the fees of European users will flow across the ocean, similar to other digital giants now.
Satellites over Slovakia
“Slovakia will continuously monitor the development of these technologies and the business model,” the strategy states.
However, the country is not yet banking on this type of connection, which was not even mentioned in the recovery plan sent by the Slovak government to the Commission at the end of April.
“Specific forms of support will be clear only in the case when the National Broadband Plan begins to be implemented,” the ministry of informatisation told EURACTIV Slovakia. According to the ministry, it will be important to “harmonise plans for the creation of the so-called universal service, which is implemented in practice by the amended Act on Electronic Communications “.
Such “universality” of services results from the fact that it is available in a certain quality across the country and for all consumers, regardless of their geographical location and at an affordable price.
The act could be approved later this year. However, it does not mention satellite broadband either.
[Edited by Daniel Eck/ Alice Taylor]