Editorial | Facing Down the Next Spectrum Challenge

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Satellite operators should consider themselves warned that they will face increasing — and increasingly aggressive — challenges in the future for radio spectrum from a terrestrial wireless industry whose voracious appetite for bandwidth is only going to grow.

During a recent satellite telecommunications conference in London, experts said wireless industry advocates will once again be gunning for satellite spectrum at the 2015 policymaking gathering of global frequency regulators known as the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC). The global satellite industry — or more precisely, its government representatives — fended off a bid to reallocate C-band satellite spectrum at the 2007 WRC, but one should assume that the wireless community will be stronger and better organized this time around.

C-band spectrum likely will be contested again at the 2015 meeting. But experts said Ka-band spectrum, just now coming into its own as a mainstream satellite frequency, primarily for broadband and mobile applications, could be targeted as well.

According to a pair of recent reports issued by the market research firms Northern Sky Research and Euroconsult, satellite operators are investing heavily in Ka-band systems, which are expected to generate billions of dollars in annual revenue within the next decade. Ironically, cellular will be among the customers, using the satellite bandwidth for backhaul and other services.

David Hartshorn, executive secretary of the Global VSAT Forum, who helped mobilize the satellite industry for the 2007 WRC fight, believes the indications of the coming challenge are both unmistakable and ominous. He noted that wireless regulators in the United Arab Emirates, which has deployed substantial Ka-band satellite infrastructure, have openly suggested that these frequencies be shared. This, he warned, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Whether or not the Ka-band threat is as immediate or dire as Mr. Hartshorn makes it out to be — not everyone agrees with his assessment — the message for satellite operators and their government advocates is clear: Stay vigilant. In the near term, that means making a concerted, proactive effort to rally government regulatory authorities to their cause. In the longer term, it means assuming and anticipating future challenges before they manifest themselves — otherwise it might be too late.

The 2007 WRC can be a model for success at future such meetings, which occur every three or so years, but should not be taken as a harbinger. The satellite industry and its customer base — including government agencies that provide critical services — have far too much at stake to allow themselves to be outmaneuvered even once.