Europe Mounts Defense of Radar Satellite Spectrum Against Wireless Broadband Incursion

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PARIS — European governments are seeking assistance worldwide in blocking an attempt by terrestrial-wireless broadband interests to use a slice of radio spectrum now reserved for radar Earth observation satellites, particularly those in development in Europe and Canada.

In a new version of a similar dispute with satellite telecommunications services operating in a different portion of the C-band spectrum, the terrestrial-broadband promoters — Cisco Systems, Intel, Qualcomm and Broadcom among them — say the frequencies in question can be shared with little or no harm to radar satellites’ effectiveness.

In a mid-January submission to the 48-nation European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), the broadband companies say even studies that show radar Earth observation signals at their most fragile end up concluding that Wi-Fi use and radar satellite imagery can coexist without interference.

“Sharing between [C-band radar satellites] and [Wi-Fi] is feasible,” the terrestrial broadband group said, referring to RLANs, or radio local area networks including Wi-Fi. The study assumed that 95 percent of Wi-Fi use occurred indoors, limiting signal propagation outside that would confront the satellite signals. That is not the view of France, Britain and the 28-nation European Commission, which are now preparing to launch three Sentinel-1 spacecraft, the first set to enter operations by this summer. The Sentinel-1 satellites are part of the Copernicus environment-monitoring network being built by the European Commission. 

The EC and the 20-nation European Space Agency together have invested 3.4 billion euros ($4.6 billion) in Copernicus, with another 3.8 billion euros planned by the EC between 2014 and 2020.

“SAR measurements would be heavily interfered with if the RLANs are allowed to operate in this frequency band,” ESA said in a presentation to CEPT, referring to the radar satellites’ synthetic aperture radars. “This would mean severe disruption of the SAR measurements over all populated areas: urban, suburban and even rural.”

Like the Sentinel-1 satellites, Canada’s next-generation Radarsat Constellation Mission, including three satellites, operates in the same C-band spectrum coveted by the wireless-broadband companies — 5350-5470 megahertz.

The CEPT attempts to force common positions in advance of the World Radiocommunication Conference, held every three or four years to assign wireless frequency rights and satellite orbital slots. Organized by the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate, the next conference is scheduled for 2015.

CEPT and its counterparts in the Americas, Africa and Asia are now sorting through the issues expected at the conference and determining what position to take there.

With the explosion of demand for mobile broadband — some 30 billion Internet-connected mobile devices are expected to be in service by 2020 — network operators and equipment providers are desperate to find additional radio spectrum in which to operate.

The demand for spectrum is one reason certain mobile satellite service providers in the United States have been subject to so much market speculation and bidding wars, even after some have failed in their core mission: They have rights to radio spectrum that could be used for mobile broadband.

Earth observation service providers are generally viewed — by their own assessment — as even less adept at political lobbying than satellite telecommunications operators, who only late in the game coalesced into a single team to preserve their use of C-band during the 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference. Even this victory was only partial. Satellite telecommunications officials expect a repeat battle in the 2015 conference over the 3-gigahertz section of C-band.

France, Britain, the European Commission and the World Meteorological Organization nonetheless have begun raising the issue to prepare for the conference.

At a Jan. 17 summit in Geneva of the 89-nation Group on Earth Observations, the French, British and World Meteorological Organization delegations said the loss of Sentinel-1 data would affect all nations. The Australian and ESA delegations to the meeting asked the group’s secretariat to “develop resources” to enable nations to lobby International Telecommunication Union members in advance of the 2015 conference.

The radar satellite system backers say they deliberately selected the 5350-5470-megahertz range following the 2003 World Radiocommunication Conference decision to allocate other portions of the band to terrestrial wireless applications.

“ESA decided to operate the Sentinel-1 SAR in this ‘safe’ band, where no mobile systems are present,” ESA said in its presentation to CEPT. “Other space agencies — Canada, China — took similar decisions.”

One ESA official said China’s delegation to the Jan. 17 summit in Geneva declined to endorse the French and British position, saying China’s upcoming radar satellites will not be operating in the affected spectrum.

Whether China will endorse the position of France, Britain, the World Meteorological Organization and ESA at the 2015 conference is unclear. Most governments have yet to arrive at firm conclusions about the multiple issues expected during the four-week conference.

The U.S. government has been seen as generally backing the terrestrial broadband providers given the overwhelming demand for broadband.

Despite the European Commission position, even the CEPT remains uncertain of how to proceed. In a Jan. 17 statement following its meeting in Rome, CEPT said the disposition of the C-band spectrum is “subject to further consideration taking into account sharing and compatibility studies.” There is “no common view” among CEPT members, its statement said.

 

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