‘Space Protocol’ Widely Opposed by Industry Is on Agenda for ITU Meeting in Korea

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PARIS — A proposed international convention on space-asset identification and legal treatment has survived near-unanimous vilification by large satellite fleet operators, satellite manufacturers, launch service providers, insurers and financiers, and is on the agenda for international regulators meeting Oct. 20 in Busan, South Korea.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference will specifically address the question of whether the Geneva-based ITU, a United Nations agency that regulates radio frequency use and orbital slots, should be charged with supervising the proposed Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment on Matters Specific to Space Assets.

In an Oct. 13 briefing on the Busan conference, ITU officials said they expected 3,000 delegates to the three-week meeting, which occurs every four years and sets the strategic direction for the ITU. As of Oct. 13, 161 nations had agreed to send delegations. Other international organizations, plus industry, will also be in attendance.

The Space Protocol, as the convention is known, is backed by Unidroit, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, a Rome-based organization that wants to apply rules developed for rail and aircraft commerce to the space sector.

Unidroit’s reasoning is that, once adopted, the Space Protocol will reduce the cost of financing “as a result of the increased level of transparency and predictability for financiers,” the organization said in its document backing the protocol.

“Such an instrument will, in particular, help bring much-needed financial resources to the NewSpace community, namely those small start-up companies that have emerged as a result of the booming commercial space sector,” it said.

Unidroit assembled 40 nations in early 2012 to a conference hosted by the German government to debate the protocol. Twenty-five of these nations, including some of those most reserved about the protocol, signed a statement that ostensibly endorses at least its ideal. Signatories included the United States, France, Russia, Luxembourg, Italy and the 28-nation European Union.

Nations were then asked to sign initial approvals to start the protocol’s adoption by their governments. Only Germany and three other nations — Burkina Faso, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe — signaled their support.

The Berlin conference’s results came despite a coordinated effort by a broad range of space industry interests to drive a stake into the heart of the Space Protocol.

In a letter addressed to Unidroit, this group — which included Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat and the major satellite and manufacturers in Europe, the United States and Japan — said space commerce is developing well and needs no new bureaucracy to add complexity and cost.

“No satellite financings have failed to proceed, or been unduly expensive, due to impediments over granting and perfection of security interests,” the group said. The Space Protocol “would introduce new and unnecessary regulation for the financing of satellites … impairing the real-world business of the critical infrastructures we represent.”

Unidroit, the group said, “has consistently disregarded the views of the satellite manufacturing, operator and financing communities.”

Despite the small turnout of signatories, the protocol survived by virtue of its endorsement, albeit vague, by 25 of the 40 nations attending the Berlin conference.

Many details of the protocol remain to be decided. Many nations appear unclear as to what the ITU would do if it became the protocol’s Supervisory Authority, and how much such a role would cost the ITU.

In a testament to the longstanding difficulty of the ITU with issues of transparency and openness, the government of Japan in April wrote the organization to complain that Japanese officials could not clear ITU document-access barriers to determine how the ITU views the protocol and its eventual cost.

Yvon Henri, chief of the Space Services Department in the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, said that while many larger satellite fleet operators opposed the protocol, the smaller players did not.

In any event, he said, the ITU is acting following the Berlin majority vote but is only debating the ITU’s eventual role as a supervisor, and not the wisdom of the protocol itself.

“A majority of administrations at the Berlin conference agreed to the protocol,” Henri said, adding that the ITU is aware of the antagonism of many operators to the protocol.

Since the protocol was first proposed around 2009, a growing number of developing nations have launched their own national telecommunications or Earth observation satellites. Many were financed by low-cost loans and guarantees from export-credit agencies in the United States, France, Japan, China and Canada.