This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
The International Telecommunication Union aims to introduce more stringent rules this fall to prevent would-be constellation operators from using a single satellite to hoard radio frequency spectrum intended for hundreds or thousands of spacecraft.
In late October, the world’s telecommunications regulators will gather in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19), where they will discuss and, if consensus is reached, introduce new satellite deployment milestones for constellations — particularly those submitting plans for large satellite systems in low and medium Earth orbits.
Currently, any satellite operator requesting spectrum rights from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for a new satellite system has seven years to take possession of the given slot — either with a new or existing satellite — and keep it there for at least 90 days before submitting so-called “bring into use” paperwork. Once spectrum rights have been assigned to an operator, other ventures must design their systems to avoid interference.
Regulators worry that the ITU’s current bring-into-use rules make it too easy for companies to warehouse spectrum, potentially tying up valuable non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) frequencies for years without introducing new satellite services.
Alexandre Vallet, chief of the Space Services Department in the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, said the ITU has received more than 1,100 submissions for satellites in non-geostationary orbits. While most of those filings are for small numbers of satellites, such as science spacecraft, about 200 of the applications on file are for telecom constellations.
If all those telecom systems managed to put up a placeholder satellite, it would be “extremely difficult” to ensure each proposed constellation had enough spectrum and avoid creating a chaotic interference situation, he said.
To prevent this, the ITU is preparing to adopt milestones requiring constellation operators to launch multiple satellites within explicit time frames to preserve their spectrum rights.
“The idea would be to implement a milestone process a little bit similar in intent to the one at the FCC, but with different criteria,” Vallet said in an interview.
In 2017, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission imposed rules requiring constellation operators to launch half their approved number of satellites within six years of receiving U.S. market access, and the full constellation within nine years. Failure to meet those milestones caps the authorization at the number of spacecraft launched before the clock ran out.
OneWeb, which was granted U.S. market access in 2017, has until 2023 to launch 360 of its approved 720-satellite constellation. SpaceX, which received approval in 2018 for 4,425 satellites, has until 2024 to orbit at least half that total.
The FCC, however, only has jurisdiction over the United States. Internationally, the ITU is tasked with spectrum coordination to make sure satellites don’t interfere with each other once in space.
Vallet and other satellite industry experts expect intense debate during WRC-19 over the milestone dates and percentages the ITU should adopt. This fall’s spectrum conclave takes place Oct. 28 to Nov. 22 (WRCs happen every three to four years).
While agreement exists on the need for milestones, a majority opinion on what they should be does not. Vallet said some regulators, for example, favor giving constellations only a year to reach their first deployment milestone, while others suggest three years. How many satellites they would be required to launch to preserve their full spectrum claims is also up for debate, he said.
“There is a very good consensus that there should be a milestone process,” he said. “At WRC-19, they will try to find an agreement between the various options.”
Of concern is that with less than six months before WRC-19 convenes, there remains a lack of agreement regarding what milestones should be chosen, said Mike Thompson, a U.K.-based project director at Access Partnership, an international telecommunications consultancy.
“Everyone agrees yes, we should have milestones, but I haven’t seen anyone agreeing on what those milestones should be,” he said. “When it comes to the conference, I think there will be a lot of late night oil burnt trying to hammer out what exactly is the best compromise for everybody.”
Thompson said constellation ventures already engaged in developing or deploying their systems will push for milestones they think will help cement their early lead.
“They would like to create a hurdle that they can just clear themselves, but might actually restrict some competitors following on behind them,” Thompson said.
On the other hand, regulators from nations lagging in domestic constellation ventures will be looking for ways to prevent front runners from boxing out later contenders.
Chris Stott, CEO of ManSat, a firm that works in international spectrum regulation, said some of his customers are from smaller countries that fear getting shut out of constellation activity.
“Some of our customers are startup companies trying to do something really amazing to change the world, and they need equitable access — everyone does,” he said. “It’s a really hard question, because people are trying to codify a future action before it even happens, which is really problematic in terms of international regulations.”
Finally, satellite manufacturers, now starved of traditional multiton geostationary satellite orders, are likely to oppose any rules that would make it harder for them to win constellation production contracts.
One industry official currently working with a megaconstellation said some satellite manufacturers have flooded the ITU with constellation filings in the hope that they can match these notional systems with buyers more easily if the regulatory heavy-lifting is already done.
“Those satellite manufacturers have made lots of ITU filings, but the trouble is they don’t know exactly what a customer will want, so they’ve made very generic filings — as generic as they possibly can — in the hope that a customer will turn up that will want a satellite system that will fit within one of these filings,” the official said. “It’s a very speculative venture for them. The cost of making a filing is, say, $20,000 to $30,000. It’s not peanuts, but it’s not significant in the overall scale of things with a satellite system.”
Thompson said manufacturer interests “will have an impact” on the milestone debate. The world’s top satellite builders are in the U.S. and Western Europe, but countries with burgeoning small satellite builders are also interested in creating favorable climates for their companies to do constellation business, he said.
“There are a large number of these filings being published by the ITU for these huge constellations; it’s clearly impossible for them all to be commercialized,” Thompson said.
Spectrum experts agree a solution to warehousing must be found, but doubt the process will be easy.
“The ITU finds itself between a rock and a hard place,” Stott said. “Yes, there has to be a regulatory measure in place to address that contingency, of course, but what is that measure?”