Editorial | Opposition for No Apparent Reason

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International regulators should brush aside a curious recommendation by an alliance of high-profile satellite operators against approving satellite transmissions in radio frequencies currently reserved for air-to-ground links.

The surprise recommendation by the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), if adopted, could complicate efforts by Aireon LLC and others to offer services to allow aircraft flying beyond the range of ground-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) antennas to relay their position via satellite to air traffic management authorities. ADS-B signals are derived from GPS position-location data

Currently, aircraft flying over remote areas, typically on transoceanic routes, have no way of keeping ground-based authorities up to date on their locations, meaning that for safety reasons they cannot diverge from preprogrammed flight paths. Satellite-based services would change that, enabling airlines to save money by flying more fuel-efficient routes that could be modified in flight. Such services also have an important role to play in flight safety, as was underscored following the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 somewhere over the southern Pacific Ocean in March.

However, under existing International Telecommunication Union (ITU) rules, the 1090-megahertz frequency band used to transmit ADS-B signals is approved for air-to-ground and air-to-air links only. The earliest opportunity to extend that approval to satellites is at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), the latest in the quadrennial series of conclaves during which ITU member states hash out policies governing frequency use and settle conflicting spectrum claims. The agenda for the upcoming WRC will be set at a plenipotentiary session slated to take place Oct. 20-Nov. 8 in Busan, South Korea.

Governments from North and South America, Africa and Asia are pushing for a formal resolution to approve satellite transmissions in the ADS-B frequency. But ESOA in August asked the Conference on European Posts and Telecommunications, Europe’s regional representative to the WRC, to oppose the idea.

It’s not clear why the group, whose members include Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Inmarsat, is taking that position. Its stated reason, that the proposal “could be flawed” and needs more study — SES suggested it might be mishandled at the WRC — seems flimsy.

The alliance also suggested that the policy change is unnecessary because other solutions might already be available, and singled out Inmarsat as a provider — this despite the fact that Inmarsat’s existing L-band service was only helpful in determining which direction the Malaysian jetliner was heading when it went incommunicado. Interestingly, Inmarsat is a fierce competitor to Iridium Communications, the mobile satellite services operator that hatched the Aireon venture along with Nav Canada and other national air traffic management authorities. Aireon will rely on payloads hosted aboard the 66-satellite Iridium Next constellation, slated to begin launching in 2015.

Aireon is intended as a profit-making business, but the company has pledged to make its aircraft position-location data available free of charge to air safety and rescue authorities during emergencies. There can be little doubt about the value of this type of service following the disappearance of MH 370: Seven months after the fact, not a trace of wreckage has been found despite a massive search effort involving multiple nations equipped with the most advanced technology available. 

Authorities say the ADS-B transponder was turned off on MH 370 for some unexplained reason. But it’s not clear whether having that transponder on would have made a difference given the aircraft’s remote location and the fact that ADS-B has not yet been fully integrated into global air-traffic-management systems.

Inmarsat and SES obviously recognize the value of satellite relay for ADS-B and have hinted at plans for their own services, which makes ESOA’s opposition to the proposed policy change even more puzzling.

Also odd, and perhaps a bit ironic, is the fact that ESOA and some of its key members are hoping to rally a defense against an expected push at the upcoming WRC to reallocate large chunks of C-band spectrum from satellite to terrestrial applications. Given what’s at stake for those invested in C-band services — Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat in particular — now might not be the best time to sow division within any pro-satellite coalition.

The Conference on European Posts and Telecommunications in particular has been less than supportive of the satellite industry on the C-band matter, which, though concerning, at least has a rationale: Any number of terrestrial applications could make productive use of that spectrum. Conversely, it is difficult to imagine, much less see, a worthy argument against adding satellite to the approved transmission modes for ADS-B signals. Supporters of the policy change, which by all appearances is benign, should make a concerted effort before and during the plenipotentiary session to ensure that it makes it onto the WRC agenda.