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Connecting the Dots | Speeding up the satellite regulatory machine

The 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 22, where regulators from around the world gathered to discuss and decide on the optimal use of spectrum for telecommunications. Credit: ITU/D.Woldu

The quadrennial wait for updating global spectrum rules stands in stark contrast to the rapid pace of change now sweeping through space and terrestrial communications.

Satellite and ground-based networks are fast converging to unprecedented levels, underlined by the emergence of direct-to-smartphone capabilities.

This integration promises new business opportunities but also creates interference and other challenges threatening critical infrastructure.

And yet regulators only gather once roughly every four years for the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) to set ground rules for existing and future telecoms services.

“The world is moving fast, and we need to be more nimble, more agile with respect to both technology and business,” said Rajeev Gopal, vice president for advanced systems at satellite broadband provider Hughes Network Systems.

“All of us have heard about agile software development,” Gopal added, “we need an agile approach in business and regulatory affairs — the way people change policies within a country, across countries. We can’t wait for four years.”

However, regulatory machines tend to be built for something other than speed.

While increasing the frequency of WRCs sounds good, “overcoming the real practical issues is the problem,” noted Jennifer Manner, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at Hughes’ parent company EchoStar.

“In the early 90s, there was a movement to have WRC every two to three years, and it was an abysmal failure,” she warned.

“And the reason for that is there have to be studies done on an international basis, and it takes time to vet and garner consensus.”

At the end of each WRC, an agenda is adopted for the issues the next one will address, and an initial preparatory meeting starts just a week later to divvy them out to various study groups.

Taking into account time to recoup from WRC and deadlines for preparing conclusions ahead of the next conference, Manner said the current setup allows a little over two years for conducting highly complex technical studies.

Even some rule-making proceedings at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission are only wrapped up in two years, and they concern just one country, not all of them.

WRC study groups must conclude their findings roughly one year before the next conference to be included in the Conference Preparatory Meeting Report, which is critical preparation for the international event.

Amid the pandemic, some study meetings have been held remotely in the run-up to the next WRC in late 2023 in the United Arab Emirates, reducing costs and travel time.

However, Manner said virtual discussions have proved far less effective.

“It’s awful being remote because you don’t have that interpersonal ability to talk to people to come up with solutions,” she said.

“I think people are ruder online … I think diplomacy has suffered incredibly much from the pandemic.”

This has likely set the stage next year for a more contentious than usual WRC, which despite their convergence remains a key battleground between space and terrestrial players for access to more spectrum resources.

“You could bring the gap between WRC meetings down to 3 ½ years, possibly,” a source at British satellite operator Inmarsat involved in WRC negotiations said via email.

However, “given the nature of what WRC has to cover — in a lot of technical detail — and the national and international bodies that attend, plus the role of commercial enterprises and organisations representing them, it’s difficult to see how it could be any more frequent than that.”

For now, the space industry should perhaps be thankful WRCs only run for four weeks — or six weeks, including adjacent meetings — when they used to last four months at a time.

“People used to get divorced, have affairs,” remarked another source who did not want to be named, “I mean, they still have affairs.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 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,...