Arab Nations Willing To Cede Some Satellite Spectrum at WRC-15

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Arab nations are willing to cede to terrestrial mobile telecommunications operators some of the spectrum now reserved for satellite links at an upcoming meeting of global regulators, the chairman of the regional grouping of Arab spectrum experts said May 26.

Reversing a position held during the last battle between terrestrial and satellite operators with respect to C-band transmissions, the 22-nation Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG) has concluded that the lower section of C-band could be surrendered to terrestrial operators in the interest of national economic development.

ASMG Chairman Tariq A. Al-Awadhi, who is also executive director for spectrum affairs at the United Arab Emirates’ Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, said the specific situation of Arab cellular operators argues in favor of opening the 3.4-3.6-gigahertz section of C-band to terrestrial transmissions.

Al-Awadhi cautioned that the ASMG would not adopt a formal position until July, but that at this point only a handful of its 22 members were in favor of maintaining a strict “No Change” position on satellite access at the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15), to be held in November in Geneva.

WRC conferences are organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, to allocate orbital slots and wireless frequency rights. The meetings occur every three or four years.

WRC-15’s top agenda item is a replay of the battle for C-band that occurred in 2007. The satellite industry won a qualified victory then, but many nations opted to open up the satellite-reserved spectrum to terrestrial mobile networks on the condition that these higher-powered terrestrial transmissions did not interfere with satellite links in neighboring countries.

The dispute concerns C-band transmissions between 3.4 and 4.2 gigahertz. Some regions, including Europe, have adopted the position that the lower piece of this band can be given over to terrestrial applications without sacrificing the many communications services provided worldwide by C-band.

Satellite industry officials had hoped that the European position could be portrayed as an isolated example of a region that makes much less use of extended C-band links than do less-developed nations, and so has less of a stake in the debate.

But several officials attending the Global Space and Satellite Forum here May 26-27, hosted by the United Arab Emirates and its new spae agency, said the ASMG decision appears to be part of a larger trend.

David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum. Credit: Space Foundation photo
David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum. Credit: Space Foundation photo

David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum, an industry group that lobbies for satellite regulatory reform and has been a key player on the “Not Change” side, said even in Africa — where C-band provides countless essential services — nations are undecided on what position to take at WRC-15.

Satellite industry-funded reports, and independent studies, agree that terrestrial wireless broadband cannot coexist with the weak satellite C-band signals. Where the two operate in relatively close proximity, the satellite dishes need to be protected by walls built around the antennas or face being overwhelmed by the terrestrial signals.

Hartshorn, referring to a study done for the satellite sector, said the terrestrial wireless industry is not even using the spectrum already allocated to it. It should focus its growth there before attacking satellite-reserved spectrum, he said.

Al-Awadhi agreed that this was so, but countered that in many nations the spectrum “allocated” to terrestrial networks is in fact already used by military or other government agencies, or is otherwise not available to fast-growing terrestrial networks. There is a legitimate spectrum shortage for the terrestrial operators, he said.

The United Arab Emirates, Al-Awadhi said, will be able to protect its existing C-band businesses by offering protective walls or stationing the terrestrial wireless transmitters at a safe distance. And he stressed that the ASMG position was for opening only the lower part of C-band.

In the UAE, Al Awadhi said, C-band ground stations are registered with state regulators. As such they can be protected, at least to some extent, because the government knows where they are.

This is not the case in Latin America, Africa and much of Asia, where C-band antennas are unlicensed. Satellite industry officials say these unregistered stations number in the millions and provide essential services to their nations.

But the same satellite industry — its major satellite operators — has been unable or unwilling to publish details of how many customers they have in C-band in a given region, viewing the information as competitively sensitive.

The result: Governments that may suffer grave damage to tele-medicine or tele-education services in remote communities are unaware of what is at stake and are less prone to protect the satellite spectrum.

Hartshorn said two Asian nations have recently asked International Telecommunication Union regulators to accept a kind of blanket registration for these uncounted, non-geolocated dishes, the better to defend the spectrum at WRC-15.

Danny WengHoa Tham, a senior engineer in the ITU’s space services department, confirmed that the ITU had recently received such a request from two member nations and would evaluate the issue a June meeting.

But as a rule, Tham said, C-band antennas that are not registered in the ITU’s books cannot lay claim to protections of registered networks, but are treated like receive-only satellite television dish antennas.

“We acknowledge it is a problem,” Tham said. “They want us to see that there are millions of these dishes in service. We are asking [the ITU Radio Regulations Bureau] what we should do.”