For the past year the satellite telecommunications industry has been one of the few bright spots amid a severe global economic downturn, with the world’s largest operators continuing to report solid growth and invest in new systems and services. Now, however, comes a warning that this prosperity is threatened – not by economic forces beyond the industry’s control but by abuses of the regulatory regime satellite operators rely on to keep order in the system.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations affiliate that coordinates satellite frequencies and orbital positions, these abuses threaten to create – in the words of one official – chaos in geostationary orbit, the operating location of most communications satellites. If that happens, the viability of this vital industry could be undermined.

The ITU has identified three problems in particular that are making it increasingly difficult to keep order in the system: so-called virtual satellites, which refers to proposed systems that are registered and coordinated but never built; the use of single satellites to claim multiple orbital positions; and the practice of registering satellite systems whose purported power capabilities and coverage areas are so great as to make it difficult if not impossible for a lower-priority operator – perhaps a small company proposing a new service in an adjacent region – to get its system coordinated.

As an example of the latter, the ITU official cited a satellite network, registered in June 2007, whose coordination requirement affected 40 national governments and a whopping 600 other satellite networks, either existing or proposed.

These issues are not new: what makes them increasingly problematic is the growing congestion in the geostationary arc, particularly in areas overlooking
North America
East Asia
. As this crowding grows, so grows the importance of tightening up the regulatory environment.

The ITU is making a concerted effort to draw attention to and curb the abuses, but its enforcement authority is limited – it relies to a large extent on the telecommunications regulatory authorities of its 191 member nations for this purpose.

The ITU and its members have had some success over the last decade in cutting back on the practice of filing the paperwork for a satellite with no intention of actually building the system. The purpose in most cases is to reserve slots or frequencies for possible future use, while blocking out potential competitors, and the effect has been to clog up the entire system.

To combat these so-called paper satellites, some ITU members have cracked down: the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, for example, now requires companies seeking satellite operating licenses to post a bond that is forfeited if the satellites are not built within a certain timeframe. But not all ITU members are equal when it comes to imposing discipline on the process. Another problem is the fact that the ITU’s Master International Frequency Registry includes satellites that were never built or have long since been retired; there is no universally accepted satellite database that can be used to verify the accuracy of the ITU registry.

The ITU deserves credit for highlighting an increasingly serious situation. The organization needs to stay vigilant about enforcing the rules that are within its power to enforce while pressuring its member states to do more to rein in the abuses. Asking national regulatory authorities to help purge the Master International Frequency Registry of nonexistent satellites was a positive step in this regard, but clearly more needs to be done. ITU member states could impose a more critical reality check on proposed satellite systems before seeking frequency and orbital slot coordination, for example.

Meanwhile, satellite operators need to do a better job of policing themselves, and here too, the ITU can help by keeping the issue front and center in public forums. The ITU needs to be aggressive in asserting itself, lest its member states lose faith in the process and seek to coordinate satellites among themselves. That can only result in one thing: chaos.