In Busan, Regulators Put Global Flight Tracking on WRC-15 Agenda

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PARIS — International regulators on Oct. 30 adopted a resolution designed to accelerate the introduction of satellite technology for commercial aircraft tracking, a subject that, while ostensibly noncontroversial, was aggressively contested by two satellite fleet operators.

Meeting in Busan, South Korea, as part of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference, some 170 governments agreed to order global regulators next year to address the issue “as a matter of urgency.”

The conference had been expected to issue such a recommendation insofar as many ITU governments had endorsed the idea in recent weeks. But behind the public display of consensus generated in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, mobile satellite fleet operators Inmarsat of London and Iridium of McLean, Virginia, waged a behind-the-scenes battle for delegate support that backers of both said went to the limit of the normal rules of engagement.

Inmarsat already offers global flight tracking, on a voluntary basis, among airlines that elect to equip their fleets with Inmarsat hardware. Iridium and its Aireon affiliate, which is planning a global commercial flight tracking service with its second-generation constellation starting in 2017, each viewed the other’s maneuvers at the ITU conference as a threat to its business.

Allegations of influence peddling and strong-arming of delegates to the conference, which began Oct. 20 and ends Nov. 7, were made by allies of both companies.

Iridium backers viewed Inmarsat as trying to preserve a monopoly by wanting to stop the conference from dealing with satellite-based airline tracking at all. These officials saw the August proposal by the European Satellite Operators Association, which asked the ITU not to tackle the issue, as an Inmarsat attempt to derail a competitive threat.

Inmarsat officials countered that Iridium/Aireon were trying to get regulators to carve out new radio spectrum dedicated to Aireon’s service, a development that would place Inmarsat at a disadvantage.

As has been the case at previous ITU conferences, where radio spectrum and satellite orbital slots are allocated, corporate maneuvering is often difficult to spot because ITU does not always insist that its advisers and officials declare their potential conflicts of interest.

The Busan meeting, presented with a French-led European proposal that would tighten conflict-of-interest disclosures, rejected the idea as something that the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), set for late 2015 in Geneva, should debate if it wished.

Based on the Busan resolution, next year’s WRC will be under pressure to declare that current spectrum used for air-to-ground communications be extended to embrace satellite-to-air links. This could be viewed as a victory for Iridium and Aireon. But the declaration does not mention any particular spectrum, nor does it reference Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, links that Iridium/Aireon are proposing.

An Inmarsat official agreed that the Busan resolution clearly asks ITU to accelerate any studies that may be needed in order to craft a resolution for the WRC conference in 2015.

In an Oct. 31 statement, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau Director Francois Rancy, who was re-elected to his post at the Busan conference, said the studies’ “final results” should be available before the WRC meeting. But he said the studies will be conducted “without constraining or prejudicing … decisions of WRC-15.”

The subject is now firmly on the WRC-15 agenda, with Rancy’s office assigned to provide the report that will inform WRC-15.