PARIS — The head of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) says the agency will emphasize space sustainability as the number of satellites grows.

In a talk Sept. 11 at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, secretary-general of the ITU, said the growing risk of collisions between satellites and debris threatens the progress satellite systems are making at enhancing communications globally and closing the digital divide.

“As orbital traffic increases and intensifies, so does the urgency to maintain a safe and also a clean space environment that will protect the trillions of dollars’ worth of assets,” she said. “We do need to prioritize sustainability of our shared space environment and resources, because what is at stake is progress toward bridging the digital divide.”

She didn’t go into details about any efforts the ITU has planned for space sustainability. She noted the ITU and the European Space Agency had started a cooperative effort to better characterize and geolocate satellite interference.

Despite the lack of specifics, executives with major satellite operators welcomed that commitment. “As an industry, we are seeing the topic of sustainability become even more important,” said Eva Berneke, chief executive of Eutelsat, during a panel at the conference, including cooperating with regulators on potential new rules to address those concerns. “We need to lean in, because otherwise, somebody else is going to do it for us.”

“A big win would be to recognize that we need to share spectrum and we need to share space,” said Mark Dankberg, chief executive and chairman of Viasat. Even discussing the issue at the upcoming World Radiocommunication Congress (WRC), he said, would be “great progress.”

Ruy Pinto, chief executive of SES, said he was concerned about some orbits becoming “unusable” because they are effectively monopolized by a single company, citing as an example SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

“If we don’t take the initiative to make sure we have access to orbits and access to spectrum, it’s going to bite us,” he said. “It’s more important than ever to get together.”

Securing spectrum

Bogdan-Martin noted that her talk was the first time that the ITU had spoken at the conference despite the critical role the ITU plays in assigning spectrum and, increasingly, handling debates between satellite and terrestrial operators over some key spectrum bands.

The speech comes a little more than two months before the next WRC, which will take place in Dubai from Nov. 20 to Dec. 15. Satellite spectrum will again be on the agenda, and Bogdan-Martin said she expected the WRC to result in new spectrum allocated for space services.

“I’m very happy to tell you that, at that WRC, we do expect that more spectrum will be allocated to space services,” she said, but did not elaborate on specific proposals for additional spectrum.

Satellite industry executives were more guarded about their prospects at WRC. “The satellite industry, by and large, has a good track record of cooperating around WRC events. We rally together,” said Pinto.

Rallying together, Dankberg suggested, may not be sufficient. “The last WRC was space versus terrestrial. I don’t think it worked out that great for space, even though we see more and more demand for space services.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...