Shoot first and ask questions later seems an apt motto for a growing number of national telecommunications regulatory authorities who are licensing portions of C-band radio spectrum for emerging terrestrial wireless applications in spite of the adverse effect on satellite systems.
The latest and perhaps most glaring example is India’s Ministry of Communications, which in January summarily advised satellite users operating in the upper end of the C-band to go someplace else by March 1 or accept the consequences: interference from terrestrial wireless transmitters that could effectively render their systems inoperable. Never mind that the incumbent users have been there legally for years and that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has allocated this portion of the radio spectrum for satellites.
Officials with the Indian Space Research Organisation, which operates that country’s Insat series of communication satellites that use C-band frequencies to transmit television programming, have protested to the Communications Ministry, but so far to no avail. Similar rulings in favor of next-generation terrestrial wireless services such as WiMax have been made by authorities in Bolivia, Fiji, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Pakistan, according to satellite industry advocates, who have been tracking the trend with increasing alarm. In the case of Bolivia, regulators learned that the interference issue was no chimera: they suspended their ruling after learning that the newly enabled devices were disrupting satellite television transmissions on the eve of the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament.
But let’s be clear: this is not just about TV, as important as that can be. C-band satellite systems are an indispensable part of the global communications infrastructure, providing connectivity for Internet access, disaster relief, distance learning and a host of other applications. C-band systems also are resistant to rainfall-related disruptions, which makes them even more indispensable in tropical regions of the world, many of which are heavily dependent on satellites for connectivity.
It turns out, unfortunately, that these same systems are not so robust in the face of radio-frequency interference. Numerous tests have shown that receive-only C-band satellite antennas are highly sensitive to interference, even from transmitters operating in different C-band frequencies. These tests strongly suggest that from a technical standpoint, there are no C-band sanctuaries for satellite signals. Dictating that the wireless transmitters operate at distances no closer than, say 50 kilometers, from satellite antennas is impractical: mobility is what the next-generation broadband systems are all about, and since receive-only satellite antennas do not need to be licensed, authorities can only guess as to their number and locations.
Wireless broadband proponents, who include some of the biggest and most powerful names in telecommunications and information technology, argue that that the terrestrial and satellite C-band services can coexist. But the newcomers should bear the burden of proof in this matter — satellite systems are the incumbent users after all, and it is not like satellite services have suddenly become irrelevant or obsolete.
To be sure, wireless broadband is an important technology that promises many benefits to consumers, the technology industry and the economy at large; governments should be pushing hard to bring these services on line. But this should not be done in a unilateralist, country-by-country fashion that threatens the global C-band satellite community with something akin to a death of a thousand cuts.
The ITU, an affiliate of the United Nations, clearly is the appropriate forum for reaching mutual accommodation on this critical issue, which should be at the top of the agenda at the World Radiocommunication Conference scheduled for this fall in Geneva. National regulatory agencies are within their right to allocate spectrum within their countries’ borders, but they should defer in this case to the ITU given the implications for satellite services, which are inherently global.
The good news is that satellite advocacy groups like the Global VSAT Forum are mobilizing and getting the word out on this critical issue in preparation for the upcoming conference. Any and all groups or individuals who are in some way connected to — or by — C-band satellite services, be they in government or elsewhere, need to be involved in this effort. There is a lot more than soccer matches at stake here.