The recently concluded World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-12) in Geneva yielded a pair of decisions that, while puzzling in their inconsistency, inadvertently shed light on a larger issue that likely will grow more acute in the coming years: Increased demand for access to satellite orbital slots and frequencies, driven in part by developing and emerging nations, will bump up against the ceilings on these orbital resources as dictated by the laws of physics.

Currently the most lucrative swaths of the geostationary orbit arc are dominated by a handful of national administrations representing the biggest satellite operators, but this is bound to change in the next decade or two as more and more countries claim a share of the global commons. The question is whether the transition will be orderly and conducive to continued productive utilization of geostationary orbit for satellite communications, or chaotic and disruptive to the detriment of all concerned.

Iran, the beneficiary of a baffling decision at the WRC-12 meeting, is representative of the up-and-coming countries and the challenge they are beginning to pose for a global regulatory regime whose inherent weaknesses — which tend to manifest themselves only when a dispute arises — are growing

more problematic. Iran has voiced valid concerns with the current rules for allocating orbital positions and frequencies but at the same time has taken advantage of the system’s flaws. It insists, for example, that its Zohreh-2 satellite service, now broadcasting over an Arabsat satellite, has complied with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) rules despite compelling evidence to the contrary. That service now threatens to interfere with a properly registered service planned by Eutelsat and the government of Qatar, serving as an example of the trouble one country can cause when the rules conflict with its own interests.

While the Zohreh-2 dispute continues to defy resolution, the WRC-12 participants rendered a favorable decision on another Iranian satellite system with a checkered history. Iran missed multiple deadlines for bringing its proposed Zohreh-1 system into service at the 34 degrees east orbital slot, prompting the ITU to remove it from its registry of approved systems. Inexplicably, the majority of the 153 national telecommunications administrations participating in WRC-12 voted to reinstate Iran’s rights to the position.

In sharp contrast, the WRC-12 delegations voted to close a loophole that has allowed established operators to retain extended priority access to orbital slots by briefly placing satellites into those positions, in some cases for less than a month.

The new policy requires operators to broadcast from the slot in question for a minimum of 90 days to retain priority, thus making it more difficult for them to idle potentially productive orbital real estate to lock out competitors.

If WRC-12 was a mixed bag in terms of rulings affecting how satellite operators coexist, the decision to reopen the possibility of reassigning certain satellite frequencies to terrestrial wireless service providers is an unambiguous threat. This issue presumably was settled at the last WRC in 2007, when delegates rebuffed an attempt by broadband terrestrial wireless proponents to grab C-band spectrum that is critically important for satellite services, particularly in developing nations. Satellite operators and their government representatives have three years to mobilize a united front against this brewing challenge, which is symptomatic of relentless growth in demand for radio spectrum as the world becomes more modern and interconnected.

Just as important, perhaps more so in the longer term, satellite operators have to make the most of the spectrum they have.

This will require — in addition to addressing the current ITU system’s built-in tolerance for paper satellites and spectrum hoarding — the orderly integration of relative newcomers to the geostationary-orbit arc.

There was a time when access to orbital slots and broadcast frequencies concerned only the largest and most economically advanced countries — those with the independent means to build and launch their own satellites. But that era is coming to an end as the barriers to satellite-market entry come crashing down. The last 20 years have seen a proliferation of national operators purchasing turnkey satellite systems from established spacefaring nations; this trend likely will continue, perhaps even accelerate, over the next two decades.

The inevitable result is intensified competition for orbital slots and broadcasting frequencies in markets with the most growth potential, such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. The big satellite operators, who naturally are angling to capitalize on this demand, are on a collision course with the emerging operators. Given the perception, articulated by Iran, that the rules are biased in favor of the established operators, the newcomers cannot be expected to quietly acquiesce if they believe they are not getting a fair hearing. They could also upend the entire regime — developing nations far outnumber developed ones in the WRC’s one-country, one-vote decision-making process.

The big satellite operators and their national administrations need to engage with emerging countries now on a strategy for accommodating the latter’s full-fledged entry into the field in a way that avoids disruptions of services on which the global economy has come to rely. They’ll likely have to give up some ground in the process, but that’s a far better outcome than the alternative.