The World’s Biggest Satellite Fleet Operators Are Lobbying To Keep Global Flight Tracking Off WRC Agenda

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PARIS — A group including several of the world’s largest commercial satellite fleet operators is proposing that global regulators not extend current radio spectrum allocations for air-to-ground communications links to satellite services.

The group, the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), says “there is no urgent need for action. … Related to global flight tracking,” and proposes that regulators turn aside efforts from North America, South America, Asia and Africa to formally adopt a resolution recognizing the satellite link, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B.

The issue is whether to extend the regulatory protection of broadcasts in the 1090-megahertz frequency, which covers air-to-ground communications, to cover satellite-to-aircraft links. The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines’ Flight 370 in March has given an added motivation to the effort.

ESOA made its proposal in mid-August to the Conference of European Posts and Telecommunications agencies, or CEPT, which is Europe’s regional representative to the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) scheduled for 2015.

The quadrennial WRCs gather nearly 200 world governments under the auspices of the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to assign wireless broadcast frequency rights and satellite orbital slots.

The agenda for the 2015 WRC will be largely set at a plenipotentiary conference happening Oct. 20-Nov. 8 in Busan, South Korea.

The ESOA proposal caught several satellite operators by surprise. The group includes the world’s three largest commercial fleet owners — Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, SES of Luxembourg, and Eutelsat of Paris — as well as mobile satellite operator Inmarsat and broadcast fleet owners Hispasat of Spain, Telenor of Norway and Hellas Sat of Greece, which is owned by Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“These companies are the same ones that are fighting hard to get the WRC to recognize the importance of satellite broadcasts in C-band so that the frequencies are not opened to wireless broadband operators,” said one industry official in discussing the ESOA move. “This is part of the same kind of effort — to demonstrate the value of satellites in the chain. Why would they be against it?”

In response to SpaceNews inquiries, ESOA Secretary General Aarti Holla-Maini said the organization is concerned that any rushed move on satellite-based ADS-B “could be flawed, as the technical studies that are normally conducted for any WRC-15 agenda item will not be complete.”

Several industry officials said they suspected that Inmarsat of London, whose satellite fleet is offering ADS-B as part of a package of services, wants to avoid any regulatory action that might help competitors get into the business.

Iridium Communications of McLean, Virginia, is offering a free ADS-B service on its second-generation satellites, to be in service in late 2017, through Aireon LLC, a joint venture of Iridium and Canadian and European air-navigation authorities.

Aireon Chief Executive Don Thoma said he could not understand the ESOA move but he declined to attribute it to any specific company.

SES spokesman Yves Feltes said SES agreed with ESOA that a late-arriving satellite ADS-B proposal may be mishandled by WRC-15 and that it is preferable not to put it on the agenda.

Inmarsat spokesman Chris McLaughlin declined to disclose his company’s view of the issue.

Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O’Connor did not respond to requests for comment on Eutelsat’s position.

Intelsat, Eutelsat, SES and Inmarsat are in the forefront of the satellite industry’s pre-WRC-15 campaign to protect C-band, which satellite operators say cannot share spectrum with terrestrial broadband providers because the terrestrial signal would overcome the weaker satellite signal, disrupting communications links that are heavily used in many parts of the world.

It is not clear whether the ESOA position will carry much weight with the CEPT nations. CEPT is already on record as being among the least supportive of the satellite industry’s attempts to fend off a C-band spectrum grab by terrestrial wireless broadband operators at WRC-15.

And even a CEPT acceptance would encounter opposition from the other regional groupings, which for the most part see no harm in extending an existing frequency authorization to satellites on behalf of air safety.

ESOA’s Holla-Maini countered that “there are various solutions for flight tracking over the oceans — direct satellite reception of the ADS-B … and other solutions, some of which are in service today, such as the L-band [mobile satellite] service provided by Inmarsat and other operators. Not only are those alternative solutions already available for flight tracking over the oceans, but they also do not require any action at WRC-15. With the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, there is an emotional backdrop to this issue, which is quite understandable, but this cannot be the basis for hasty, unnecessary decisions.”