Signal Interference Proposal Could Make the ITU a Watchdog with Some Teeth

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BRUSSELS — International regulators would have access to a global network of satellite Earth stations capable of verifying that telecommunications satellites are doing what they are registered to do under a proposal that has been accepted by European regulators and has won at least initial U.S. support, European, U.S. and international regulatory officials said.

Whether it will pass muster with other regions of the world to find a worldwide consensus — a prerequisite for enactment — remains unknown. But as more than 100 governments meet Oct. 20-Nov. 7 in Busan, South Korea, to discuss new orbital slot and wireless-broadcast issues, officials said the proposal has at least an even chance of winning approval.

A second hurdle to be cleared will be the World Radiocommunication Conference planned for Geneva in late 2015, where firm regulatory decisions are made by the 193 member nations of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The Busan conference is a preparatory meeting.

Several officials said the larger spacefaring nations — the United States, Russia and China among them — may fear that the same monitoring network used to verify claims of signal interference or noncompliance with a regulatory regime could be used to map military satellites.

Other officials said the large satellite fleet operators themselves have been the biggest abusers of the current regulatory regime and have an interest in keeping things as they are.

“These are the guys that know how to game the system; it’s not the new national satellite operator from an emerging government,” one government official said.

Gary L. Thatcher, associate director of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, said the U.S. government is debating the proposal but that it has received close attention from the agencies that will make up the U.S. delegation to the Busan conference and the follow-up World Radiocommunication Conference.

Thatcher said the monitoring network would give the ITU a neutral source of data to resolve conflicts about the sources of satellite signal interference. It would also allow the ITU to create a database tracking interference.

“The ITU does not have the capability right now to geolocate the sources of interference,” Thatcher said. “We think it needs it.”

The proposal would require the ITU, the Geneva-based United Nations agency that regulates orbital slots and wireless broadcast frequencies, to use existing satellite Earth stations in such a way as to deliver information on what satellites are where, and what their signal coverage is.

ITU officials said the system’s cost would be negligible since it would rely on existing satellite tracking stations and would require no capital investment by the ITU.

The ITU has long complained that it is powerless to challenge governments that, on occasion, tell outright lies about what their geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites actually do.

Sometimes they exaggerate the reach of their satellites’ beams, blocking other nations from launching spacecraft because, under ITU rules, the first with regulatory approval for frequencies over a given region has priority over all others coming after.

A telecommunications satellite in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator can cover up to one-third of Earth’s surface. If the government giving regulatory approval of the satellite declares that it covers a given geographic region with a given frequency, the ITU cannot challenge it.

“The regulatory filing for the satellite may be far broader than what the real satellite is actually doing,” said Francois Rancy, director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau. “In fact, in some cases there may be no real system.”

Addressing a satellite spectrum conference here Oct. 9 organized by France’s IFRI international affairs think tank and the Secure World Foundation of the United States, Rancy said satellite steerable beams are one area that makes it easy for governments to hide the facts of their satellite systems.

Satellites with steerable beams can move their coverage from one region to another depending on bandwidth demand. When registering a satellite with the ITU, the host governments may say the beams cover multiple areas that are not in fact covered once the satellite is in orbit.

Several years often pass between the time a government sends the ITU its registration for a satellite and the moment the satellite arrives in orbit. In the interim period, coordination with neighboring satellites, or changes in the business case, or other factors may have forced a substantial redesign of the spacecraft. But these changes are not sent to the ITU.

As a result, the satellite system in question is able to block, for decades, any future systems seeking to broadcast in the frequencies and regions originally registered for the satellite in orbit.

In the past, governments have gone so far as to tell the ITU a registered satellite system was active at a given orbital slot when in fact no satellite was anywhere in the vicinity.

“It costs about 20,000 Swiss francs ($13,000) to complete a satellite regulatory filing at the ITU,” Rancy said. “Compared to the cost of the satellite and the launch, the regulatory fee is close to zero, and in return you get access to valuable spectrum resources pretty much forever. This constitutes a serious barrier to entry because we don’t have access to accurate information about a satellite network.”