A GROUP of campaigners have begun a petition calling for the abolition or reduction of the VSAT licence fee, amid calls for Falkland Islands Government to hear their voices.
Following a press statement from the Acting Communications Regulator on May 9 which detailed the penalties for having illegal Starlink devices, members of the public have become angry with the current internet situation, after calling the statement “aggressive.”
“Affordable and reliable internet access is essential for upholding the communities right for freedom of expression and access to information” Simon Verrechia told Penguin News.
Admin of the Facebook group ‘The People of the Falklands vs. FIG: Human Rights and Freedom to Connect’, which currently has over 900 members, Simon explained that it is the view of the group that the current internet service provided by Sure is “not fit for purpose; it’s the price, the fact it’s not unlimited, the speed and reliability. It does not fulfil what it’s meant to be doing.”
Simon went on to explain that the current state of the internet has “economic and social impacts.” As a business owner he explains that “giving people the choice would boost businesses.”
He goes on to cite issues in healthcare, as a former biomedical engineer “I know the detrimental effects it has on healthcare. Everything is cloud based,” as well as education with online exams, and recreation “online gaming is really popular. It is important, it’s become a recreational past time.”
Calls to allow the public to use Starlink devices to access the internet have been growing in recent months. Legally these devices, classed as VSATs, can be used on payment of an annual £5,400 licence fee under the terms of the exclusive licence held with Sure – due to run out in 2027.
Simon explained that the petition that has been started has happened now because “the main trigger” was the May 9 press statement, “it got people’s backs up. It was extremely aggressive.”
The petition details two demands: abolish or reduce the licence fee to not exceed £180 per year, and to approve Starlink domestic tariffs through regulatory approval.
As reported in the Penguin News on March 22 and April 19 concerns have been raised as Starlink does not currently have regulatory approval to operate in the Falkland Islands, which means that users are currently paying for more expensive global roaming packages.
Penguin News were told that the Acting Communications Regulator, Simon Young, is “not available to speak on the statement (of May 9) or on the topic of Starlink” but we were sent written responses to some questions.
We asked for an update to communications had with SpaceX, the company that runs Starlink, regarding regulatory approval for Starlink and received the following response: “In March 2024, The Falkland Islands Government and the Communications Regulator formally wrote to Space X to support them in gaining regulatory approval from Starlink.
“This letter was not acknowledged and a further three emails were sent; it is only very recently that a reply has been received and Space X are in the process of consideration.”
Within the written responses provided, an apology was made, “the tone of the May 9 statement had not intended to be aggressive and we apologise if the public felt this way.”
When asked what his message to MLAs and the Acting Communications Regulator would be Simon said, “take more notice, listen to the people.
“What we are asking for is not unreasonable. This isn’t against the Sure employees, they do a great job and we understand there is a contract in place.
“We are not asking to break that contract, we are asking to make these changes.”
He later reiterated that the point of the petition is “about freedom of choice, not replacing one internet provider with another.”
MLA Leona Roberts had joined the Facebook group and posted to say she was there to better understand the issues, she told PN, “I understand the issues and a lot of these I and others have been raising in the house or around this table or with Sure for some time now. There is definitely a desire to push it on.
“I think petitions are a sign of a good healthy democracy, it’s a great way for people to express their frustrations or to make themselves heard.
“Will that make much difference? It adds weight to all the arguments about this so it’s helpful in that way. But that work is happening, it’s not necessarily visible that’s the problem. But we’re looking at so many options and trying to find a way forward.”
MLA Roberts added that finding a way forward had to be “productive” and not “damage” what services are provided to others.
The VSAT licence fee can be abolished or altered within the current framework, “either by negotiation with Sure and/or by changing current policy and regulation which would also require consultation with Sure” according to a response provided by the Acting Communications Regulator.
When asked if MLAs have already discussed this or would considered reducing the £5,400 fee MLA Roberts explained, “I feel that something has to change but it is figuring out what that is.
“There needs to be negotiation and discussion with Sure because that exclusive licence does exist.”
One of the criticisms levelled at MLAs is a lack of transparency about what work is ongoing, MLA Roberts said “I think that’s probably fair.
“When we had this prioritisation a few months again, hydrocarbons and telecoms were set as the priorities. We publicly said ‘Look this is what is going to be taking up an awful lot of government time and resource in the immediate future.’ But we probably could articulate better some of the options that are being looked at…this is complicated.”
When asked specifically what options were being looked at MLA Roberts said, “the licence fee issue, there’s ongoing discussion with Sure about different ways of providing. The key piece is understanding the impact of any of those options. There’s a lot of different strands that are being looked at.”
Questioned about whether the concerns of the public are being taken seriously, “very much so” was the response from MLA Roberts, “there seems to be a view that Government or MLAs just don’t want people to have good things, or are trying to block progress, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I have never underestimated the importance of internet connectivity.”
The petition is open until June 28 and is currently in locations around the Falkland Islands. Simon hopes that when presented it shows a “united front.”