Credit: SpaceNews illustration

The stage is set for a global showdown four years in the making for access to the radio waves needed for communications in space, on Earth, and everywhere in between.

A four-week battle over how finite spectrum resources should be divvied up kicks off Nov. 20, when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) convenes the next World Radiocommunication Conference in Dubai following an intense study period that started right after WRC-19.

The quadrennial conference has for decades played host to a fierce battleground for the space industry as it seeks to fend off repeated advances for its spectrum from bandwidth-hungry terrestrial telcos, or International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) in ITU lingo.

Against the backdrop of unprecedented growth in constellations and satellite businesses, space companies face an extra threat this fall: other space companies.

“This conference is going to be less characterized by the sort of IMT versus space discussion than it’s going to be for the space-on-space violence,” a senior Federal Communications Commission (FCC) official told SpaceNews.

Some of this will play out the week before WRC in Dubai at the next Radio Assembly conference, where the ITU will discuss expanding its role as the United Nations’ spectrum enforcer into space sustainability, including managing orbital debris issues that are more concerning for companies with larger constellations.

Seeking consensus

For WRC-23, representatives of countries, companies, and other organizations will come together to debate rules intended to ensure the best use of radio waves, set out under an agenda covering a wide range of topics put forward at the end of WRC-19.

After duking it out, negotiators will likely settle for compromises over the conference’s more controversial agenda items.

Even hard-fought negotiations rarely come down to a vote as groups in the minority typically fold to consensus, WRC veterans said.

“It’s better to do that and get half a loaf than attempt a vote where you get nothing,” said a regulatory expert at a satellite operator who did not want to be named.

A record 3,400 participants attended WRC-19 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, including delegates from most of the 193 ITU member states. Credit: ©ITU/D.WOLDU

After negotiating into the early hours for much of the conference, sometimes breakthroughs come from chance meetings of opposing factions in a coffee shop.

“They all hate each other at this point but then there’s a napkin that comes out and goes, look, I’ll give you this if you give me that … and then that’s it, you go back and it gets turned into legislative text.”

The end result is a treaty-level agreement to amend International Radio Regulations that countries take home to update their domestic rules.

While sometimes these regulations get updated with footnotes affecting how certain countries adopt them, the process ultimately creates a cohesive playing field for spectrum users to guard against interference on a global basis.

One of the most important items up for discussion at WRC-23 is Agenda Item 10, which puts topics up for study so they can be added to the agenda for the next WRC in 2027.

“Agenda Item 10 tends to get kicked to the third and fourth weekend,” the spectrum negotiator said, “and it gets really testy in there because people are tired, they’re ugly, and they have strong views — they haven’t slept in like the last 24 hours, and they haven’t bathed either.”

This last stretch of negotiations is so important because there’s a good chance of at least a compromise coming out of an item that makes it to the agenda.

Space infighting

While there are many items on the agenda for WRC-23 that will likely see the space industry band together to head off threats to their spectrum, battle lines have been drawn between legacy space operators and emerging players in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) seeking to level the playing field.

One of the most divisive issues for space is a proposal to consider reviewing rules that limit NGSO satellite power to avoid interfering with the geostationary spacecraft they fly under while passing over the equator, known as Equivalent Power Flux Density (EPFD) limits.

These EPFD limits were first put into radio regulations back in 1997, initially on a provisional basis.

Satellite technology and spectrum management principles have significantly changed since then, said Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs for the Project Kuiper NGSO constellation Amazon is developing.

According to Zoller, outdated EPFD rules are constraining NGSO systems more than is necessary to protect their counterparts in geostationary orbit.

Amazon announced a coalition with three think tanks Oct. 31 to push delegations preparing to meet at WRC-23 to adopt a proposal under Agenda Item 10 for potentially updating EPFD rules.

While only two test satellites have launched so far for Project Kuiper, SpaceX currently operates by far the largest NGSO constellation after launching around 5,000 Starlink satellites and is on board for reviewing EPFD rules.

Many legacy geostationary satellite operators are opposed to changing the status quo.

Anna Marklund, director of spectrum management and development at SES, which operates in geostationary and medium Earth orbit (MEO), said in a Sept. 26 blog post it sees “significant risk in disrupting well-established frameworks in ways that reduce the regulatory certainty underpinning current explosive growth in the sector.”

Current EPFD limits are the result of years of technical analysis through numerous studies and ITU conferences, Marklund wrote, providing reasonable safeguards for geostationary players while supporting the growth of NGSO newcomers.

Not all legacy operators are on the same page. Intelsat vice president of spectrum strategy Hazem Moakkit said the geostationary operator, which has plans for MEO, supports the review, adding it could help close any loopholes that might be present in the regulations while also finding ways to make them more flexible.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who took office as Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union at the beginning of 2023. Credit: ©ITU/D.WOLDU

Another item that could see clashes within the space industry is already on the agenda for WRC-23, and covers how close NGSO satellites should stick to the orbital positions they have registered with regulators.

Although no easy task for large NGSO constellations with satellites in different orbital planes that need room to cross each other, tightening stationkeeping rules would help other satellites seeking to fit into this increasingly congested patchwork.

There is general consensus for changes to bridge the gap between notified parameters and actual implementation, said Katherine Gizinski, CEO of space consultancy firm River Advisers, but different views on the applicability threshold and how wide or narrow the tolerances should be.

The big threat

As satellite operators jostle for position in a rapidly evolving market, terrestrial telcos are back on the offensive at WRC-23 to grab more frequencies currently allocated to space.

Terrestrial telcos are a powerful opponent, backed by a trillion-dollar-plus telecoms market that easily eclipses the $464 billion the space industry made in 2022, according to analysts at Euroconsult, and successfully encroached on lower portions of C-band in recent years.

While the United States auctioned off a portion of C-band frequencies to 5G telcos in 2021 and gave incumbents a cut of the multi-billion dollar windfall, satellite operators elsewhere have not been so lucky.

The higher the frequency, the more bandwidth there is for wireless communications, but at some point radio waves no longer travel through walls. C-band sits on what is known as mid-band spectrum of cellular broadband network frequencies, a sweetspot for 5G performance and coverage.

However, at WRC-23, the terrestrial telecoms industry is not only pushing for more C-band, but also other frequencies that satellite communications rely on.

There is an agenda item for WRC-23 that should in theory just be a study for terrestrial use of C-band, and the outcome of that report would drive potential work to WRC-27.

However, there is the potential for this report to trigger change as early as 2023, Gizinski said.

Alongside an Agenda Item 10 proposal to consider other bands, Gizinski said this change “could be as broad as impacting all fixed satellite service allocations with the introduction of mobile users … This is huge and really something that should be on everyone’s radar.”

Satellite operators including Intelsat and SES have publicly called on countries to make better use of existing terrestrial allocations to meet wireless needs rather than seeking spectrum elsewhere.

One of the big hurdles space faces here is the presumption by governments that giving more spectrum to terrestrial 5G equates to expanding broadband access to their citizens, a prevalent political goal that space advocates argue could be reached with new satellite technologies that can provide coverage more efficiently.

The opportunities

Although the threat of losing frequencies existing and future capabilities rely on to provide communications from space hangs over the conference, WRC-23 is not all bad news for the industry.

The space sector is also on the offensive in many areas of the agenda, pushing for more spectrum and clarity over existing allocations that could improve its economics and create new business opportunities.

If passed, one item up for a decision at WRC-23 would unlock an additional 400 MHz of Ka-band spectrum for fixed satellite services over the Americas.

ITU rules currently only clear the use of frequencies between 17.3 GHz and 17.7 GHz for downlink from a satellite to an Earth station across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

A proposal under Agenda Item 10 is being made to also clear the spectrum across Asia at WRC-27, and there’s a small chance that motion could join the decision made for the Americas at the upcoming conference.

These items would give satellite operators contiguous frequencies worldwide between 17.3 GHz all the way to 20.2 GHz, paving the way for more wide-band applications from space, although there is resistance to the proposals, including from Japan over the potential to interfere with satellite broadcast services in the region.

Upgrading satellite links

As the space industry looks toward more intelligently orchestrated architectures across a network of networks in different orbits, another agenda item to be debated at WRC-23 would define the regulatory framework for allowing satellites to talk to each other in parts of Ka-band.

Proposals under Agenda Item 10 also look into satellite-to-satellite communications in L, S and C-band, enabling more space systems to relay larger amounts of data in real-time across geostationary and NGSO networks to contact points on the ground.

Giving satellites more ways to communicate in space would also help improve the resiliency of space infrastructure to ensure there is not a single point of failure at any point in time — particularly useful for government and enterprise customers.

“I would argue any operator that wishes to participate in a multi-orbit, resilient solution for their customers has an interest here,” Gizinski said.

Boosting mobility

The last WRC defined a regulatory framework for Ka-band geostationary satellites to communicate with moving terminals, or Earth Stations in Motion (ESIM).

On the agenda for WRC-23 is extending this framework to geostationary satellites operating in Ku-band, and doing the same for NGSO Ka-band systems companies such as Amazon and Telesat are developing.

The ITU already cleared NGSOs to use Ku-band to connect with ESIMs, enabling companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb to provide broadband services to aircraft, ships, and other vehicles on the move.

There is also a proposal under Agenda Item 10 that would extend this framework to future NGSO systems seeking to connect ESIMs in the Q and V bands for more novel applications.

These mobility-focused agenda items would enable operators to use spectrum already assigned to them more efficiently to meet growing demand from customers, noted Intelsat’s Moakkit.

“We do see a spectrum crunch happening,” he said, “so we are trying to be ahead of the game by [opening] up additional spectrum so we can use it for our inflight connectivity.”

A bigger ITU role?

Also on the agenda are ways to ensure access to spectrum for developing countries in launching and operating future NGSO constellations, part of a push for equitable space access that could become a bigger part of the ITU’s role.

However, new rules and oversight for managing orbital debris could be the sleeper issue for the space sector as international regulators descend upon Dubai.

Nicholas Puschman, an associate at law firm Linklaters, expects to see the impact of space debris on current and future satellite activities raised during the course of WRC-23, including how the global community could arrive at a workable solution to mitigate such risks.

The topic was raised during a recent subcommittee meeting for the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), a branch of the United Nations that is separate from the ITU.

Puschman also highlighted a growing trend toward more rigorous licensing and enforcement at the national level, pointing to the FCC fining Dish Network $150,000 in October for breaching U.S. space debris regulations in a first for the regulator.

To date, issues around orbital debris and the space environment have been seen as areas that COPUOS should handle and not the ITU, but this could change as regulations seek to catch up with the NGSO industry’s rapid evolution and expansion.

This article first appeared in the November 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...