WRC-15 spectrum
Credit: SpaceNews/Lance H. Marburger

PARIS — The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), frustrated that the satellite industry appears incapable of defending its own interests, is calling on ITU governments to submit letters attesting to the importance of satellite C-band radio spectrum before terrestrial broadband networks take it away from them.

While not taking sides on whether spectrum reserved for satellites should be opened to terrestrial broadband — a decision that would render satellite signals unusable in the regions where terrestrial operators are broadcasting — the ITU wants to redress what it sees as a defect in its rules that has hurt the satellite case.

In statements made in the past two weeks at industry conferences in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and in Singapore, ITU officials said it appears that the satellite industry has learned little about winning friends and influencing people since it escaped with a partial C-band victory in 2007.

The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), held every four years, is where wireless radio spectrum is allocated. A sally by wireless terrestrial networks at WRC-2007 made dents in the satellite allocation in C-band, but the satellite side largely staved off the attempt to remove its C-band exclusivity.

Yvon Henri. Credit: ITU

“I remember telling satellite officials after WRC-2007: Use it or lose it,” said Yvon Henri, chief of the space services department at the ITU’s Radicommunication Bureau. “But people were so busy congratulating themselves that they forgot about it, and this time around the attack is much more serious.”

The ITU, a Geneva-based United Nations agency, is holding WRC-2015 in November in Geneva. In the eight years since WRC-2007, the terrestrial wireless industry has grown stronger, not weaker, and their demand for additional spectrum to address the continued demand for smartphone connectivity is that much louder this time round.

Alan Hadden, vice president for research at the Global Mobile Suppliers’ Association, asked a largely satellite audience June 3 at the CommunicAsia conference in Singapore to consider how much more power today’s smartphones have, and what their bandwidth demands are, compared to 2007.

More spectrum is needed to accommodate this demand, he said, and C-band is one of the candidate frequency bands being looked at.

Satellite operators and owners of ground networks using satellites say C-band is a weak signal that cannot survive in an environment in which terrestrial broadband is using the same radio spectrum without extraordinary protections — such as walls around the ground antennas — that would make the business untenable.

That part of the debate appears to be settled. But the gaping hole in the satellite industry’s argument is that no one is able to say how many C-band antennas are in use in those nations where rainfall is heavy enough to argue against Ku- and Ka-band.

Pointing to the fill rates of their C-band satellites over South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, satellite operators say millions of C-band dishes, some carrying social services such as tele-education or telemedicine, are already in place.

But no one has counted them, and the satellite industry has been unable to persuade its network operators to produce detailed accounts of how many users there are. In most nations, these C-band dishes do not need to be registered, and service providers view customer data as commercially sensitive.

Earlier this year, the governments of Vietnam and Thailand, in a move that apparently had never been considered before, sent letters to the ITU stating that, while exact numbers could not be produced, the C-band services in their nations were numerous and important and deserved consideration.

Henri said June 10 that the WRC conferences are run on a consensus basis, and that even relatively informal declarations such as those from Vietnam and Thailand can have an effect.

In a draft of his report to be presented to WRC-2015, Francois Rancy, director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, asked: “How can an administration obtain international recognition for the operation” of its satellite networks when they are not registered?

Rancy said having governments send attestations that millions of dishes were in use is fine, but that his office “has no instruction on how to process such a request.”

Rancy asked his division’s decision makers, the Radio Regulations Board, for guidance at the board’s latest meeting, which ended June 9. In what appeared to be a recognition that the whole issue of C-band allocations is becoming a controversial topic, the board decided that it needed more information and would consider the subject at its next meeting.

One European official with experience on a national radio frequency board said during the CommunicAsia conference that the satellite sector has never been good at politics or at presenting a clear, unified message for regulators.

Armed with the example from Vietnam and Thailand, Henri said his office is encouraging satellite industry officials to deploy to the capitals of nations in which C-band is in widespread use to ask these governments to send similar letters to the ITU.

“We don’t need an exact number,” Henri said. “When you have hundreds of thousands of them, we understand you cannot count them individually. But we want administrations to describe these Earth stations’ characteristics and given an estimate of their number — 300,000, 1 million, 3 million — whatever.”

Henri said the end result would not be a guaranteed protection of these frequencies, but rather an international recognition that these users exist.

“For us this is a separate issue from whether C-band allocations should be given to terrestrial broadband,” Henri said. “This is for WRC-2015 to decide. But beyond this, it seems unfair that certain [spectrum] applications are recognized, while these — which count millions of ground stations — have no recognition at an international level. They should have such recognition. There is still a little time before WRC-2015. The leaders of the satellite industry need to act.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.