Spectrum Cops Advising Small-satellite Owners of Obligations

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BEIJING — The agency that regulates global wireless frequencies and satellite orbital positions on Sept. 27 warned owners of small satellites that they are not exempt from the rules that bind the rest of the satellite industry.

Officials from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based United Nations affiliate, said they did not want to discourage the explosion of small-satellite applications and business plans sweeping the industry.

But they said a failure of these small satellites — whether they weigh 1 kilogram or several hundred — to follow the rules on registering frequencies and orbits ultimately may do the industry a disservice.

“The rules are legally binding on all ITU member states,” said Attila Matas of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, which handles satellite registrations. “The rules are also binding on cubesats because they are using spectrum resources.”

Addressing the 64th International Astronautical Congress here, Matas said that in most cases, cubesats, picosats and small satellites of most descriptions are given access to frequency on a secondary allocation basis. That means they must not interfere with satellite networks that have won primary allocation status, and they have no right to complain if their communications are disturbed by those with the higher status.

Matas said small satellite owners in the past have complained that the ITU rules are too complicated and too expensive to follow. That is no longer the case, he said, especially since the agency in January placed on line, free of charge, its complete rulebook.

“Now everything has changed, and you have no excuse,” Matas said.

Yvon Henri, chief of the ITU’s space services department, said in an interview here that the ITU welcomes the blossoming of the small-satellite sector and does not want to appear to be putting sand in its gears. But if a small satellite turns out to interfere with a larger satellite network, and it becomes a matter of dispute between the host nations of the two networks, it ultimately could act as a deterrent to future small-satellite development.

“We are not trying to act like the police, but we have to take care not to allow interference,” Henri said. “There is also the question of orbital debris, which is a separate issue but also should be of concern since some of these small-satellite networks are talking about launching dozens of satellites at altitudes above the international space station.”

Henri said the ITU is not equipped to sort out which small-satellite projects are credible and which are not. But he said that from public announcements about projects that appear to have attracted investment capital, the ITU suspects that many are not registering their networks with the ITU. Once launched, they will be in violation of rules that have the force of an international treaty.

Registering a network with the ITU for commercial satellite owners costs about 570 Swiss francs, or $626. Once the Advance Publication Information (API) is received, the satellite owner has seven years to bring the system into use by launching at least one satellite broadcasting in the registered frequencies.

The fee is the ITU’s means of recovering the cost of maintaining its Master International Frequency Register.

Matas said the agency would like small-satellite owners to file their APIs “at least two years” before they expect to launch their first satellites.

Faced with what it suspects will be a flood of satellite systems that ultimately are funded and make it to orbit, the ITU is asking small-satellite owners to propose ways that the agency might better take account of their special status.

In recent years, even some well-financed large satellites backed by Wall Street have overlooked the importance of the ITU, only to regret it later as their systems were challenged by nations with fully registered satellites nearby.

Matas said the ITU wants to collect these proposals in time to discuss them at the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), scheduled for 2015. These quadrennial meetings set the rules the ITU must follow.

In a separate presentation here, Matas said WRC-15 already is filled with issues that directly impact the satellite industry.

For example, he said, some nations are concerned that mobile satellite broadband to maritime vessels might cause interference with these nations’ terrestrial-wireless broadcasts as the ships enter territorial waters and approach the coast.

“This could create a hot debate at the conference because it touches on the sovereignty of nations,” Matas said. “You get into issues like the definition of international waters, and how close to a national border a [broadband-enabled] ship can get.”