LONDON — European regulators spent three years debating whether they could classify mobile user terminals for high-throughput Ka-band satellites as a “fixed” service before accepting a proposal that it was not the terminal, but the platform, that did the moving, government and industry officials said.

In what one industry official said was a “masterly stroke” of torturing language to bypass regulatory roadblocks, the 48-nation Conference of European Posts and Telecommunications (CEPT) has agreed that Ka-band terminals on planes, ships and land-based vehicles are not themselves moving even if they are on moving platforms. 

The deciding factor was the invention of the term ESOMPs, or Earth Stations on Mobile Platforms, which convinced regulators that Ka-band terminals should be given a regulatory treatment similar to their Ku-band predecessors. Established Ku-band services, though generally classified as fixed, have long been granted leeway for use in mobile applications. 

The regulators “had never seen Ka-band before,” said Ann Vandenbroucke, director of international regulatory and policy issues at London-based Inmarsat, which is building a global network of Ka-band satellites for mobile applications. “You have to understand that the regulators are not accustomed to innovating thinking. They are in a box, and for them we were introducing mobility into a [radio spectrum] reserved for fixed satellite services.

“We said, ‘It’s just like a fixed Ka-band terminal.’ And they responded: ‘But it moves.’ Then in a masterly stroke of diplomatic language, a colleague, I believe from Norway, came up with ESOMPs. The bureaucrats agreed that the terminal doesn’t move, it’s the platform that moves.”

In a Dec. 5 presentation here to the High-Throughput Satellites London Roundtable, organized by the Global VSAT Forum, Vandenbroucke said Inmarsat, for which near-global regulatory approval is indispensable for its Ka-band Global Xpress satellite system, never underestimated how difficult it would be to get global licensing approval.

She said even humanitarian aid organizations responding to disasters will not enter areas with mobile communications gear before being assured that the licenses are in place. “And this is in a time of a disaster!” Vandenbroucke said.

Brian Everard, director of Everard Solutions, which coordinates emergency assistance for nongovernmental organizations, agreed that aid organizations hesitate to use communications gear in disasters if there is no clear regulatory approval.

In one case, Everard said, an insurgent group in one nation destroyed the building where telecommunications regulations were stored. No one knew what kind of terminals could be used under what circumstances.

Tony Azzarelli, head of the space and science division at the British telecommunications regulatory authority, Ofcom, said Dec. 4 that the ESOMPs definition does not include hand-held terminals, but only the equipment used with high-data-rate directional antennas.

“This does not cover do-it-yourself installations,” Azzarelli said. Addressing the VSAT Mobility 2013 conference organized by Informa Telecoms and Media, Azzarelli the 48-nation CEPT earlier this year accepted ESOMPs. Each nation now must implement its own regulations using the CEPT guidelines.

Azzarelli, whose office licenses Ka-band satellite operators including Inmarsat, O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands and Avanti Communications, said Ofcom is adopting a “light-touch, least intrusive” ESOMPs regulatory regime.

Licensing fees will be low and sometimes zero, he said. Final regulations are expected by mid-2014. 

Many of the CEPT nations that are slower than Britain to issue regulatory approvals will nonetheless grant Inmarsat, O3b and others temporary licenses pending the final rulings.

The result, Azzarelli said, is that none of the business plans for mobile-Ka-band broadband systems will be undercut by European regulatory procedures.

The difficulty for Inmarsat is that it is seeking Global Xpress authorization in more than 200 national jurisdictions worldwide, and it must convince wary airlines and ship-fleet operators that they face no legal trouble in using Global Xpress.

The aeronautical market, Vandenbroucke said, is particularly loath to do anything that might hint at regulatory trespass.

For example, airlines insist that every nation they fly over grant Global Xpress approval regardless of where the planes take off and land.

“You can tell them, ‘No one is hiding in the long grass with a rifle to shoot at planes flying over their territory using unapproved terminals.’ It doesn’t matter. You need regulatory OKs from all nations you fly over,” Vandenbroucke said. “Even in nations where you do not need regulatory approval, the airlines want to see a document, on the stationery of the regulator, saying that you don’t need a license.”

Azzarelli said many other nations around the world look at CEPT for guidance on certain radio spectrum issues, and that this, plus the fact that Ku-band mobile terminals have been in use for years, should speed what otherwise is a slow march to global acceptance of Ka-band mobile terminals.

Several satellite operators, including Inmarsat, are launching military Ka-band payloads alongside those using civil Ka-band frequencies. The military frequencies are an invention of the NATO alliance that may or may not face a regulatory challenge at some point by operators of Ka-band systems from non-NATO countries.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.