Op-ed | Satellite communications are an essential link for a connected world
This op-ed originally appeared in the May 6, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Satellite communications are everywhere, but all too often remain invisible to the general public. This is both an indication of their successful integration into the overall telecommunication market, and sometimes an obstacle to a proper understanding of their vital importance for an interconnected world.
Nearly every sector of the economy relies upon this technology in some way – from transportation and meteorology to news gathering and banking. Satellites help save lives in emergencies and provide critical knowledge about our planet and how to better protect the environment amid the perils of climate change. They will be vital in accelerating progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Moreover, there is no slowdown in the pace of satellite innovations: reading the press, it seems that every week brings another new example of how satellite industry could have profound impact on improving people’s lives.
These more and more diverse and pervasive satellite technologies all rely on the same core element: the availability of radio frequencies that can be operated free from harmful interference.
RADIO FREQUENCIES — RADIO REGULATIONS: AN ENDURING SUCCESS
To ensure this availability, the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the associated satellite orbits (both geostationary and non-geostationary) allocate specific frequencies for various space applications and contain detailed technical provisions and regulatory procedures to ensure the rational, equitable, efficient and economic use of spectrum and orbit resources.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been maintaining this treaty for over 112 years, long before space services were included in it in 1963, just six years after Sputnik’s flight. At that time, 400 delegates from 70 ITU Member States were in Geneva for an Extraordinary Administrative Radio Conference that initiated a flow of global regulations and standards on the use of radio frequencies for space services and orbital resources.
The procedures to get access to spectrum and orbit resources are based on a cooperative system, whereby ITU member states provide the characteristics of their intended use of orbit and spectrum resources, the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau examines their compliance with the Radio Regulations, and then publishes them so that their use can be coordinated with other ITU member states who have satellite projects that could be affected because they use the same radio frequencies in similar orbits.
The coordination of satellite projects among ITU member states naturally involves the satellite operators that provide the technical studies necessary to reach international agreements to allow several satellites to share the same resources without interfering with each other.
Once all these procedures are completed, satellite frequencies are entered in the Master International Frequency Register, where they enjoy the legal rights (mainly of operating free from harmful interference) obtained in conformity with the Radio Regulations.
KEEPING PACE WITH INNOVATION: THE ROLE OF WORLD RADIOCOMMUNICATION CONFERENCES
But with rapidly evolving technologies, innovative applications and new business models recently blossoming in the satellite industry, this treaty (not only the procedures but also the frequency allocations) needs to adapt and be regularly updated: this is the role of World Radiocommunication Conferences.
Such conferences take place every four years and consider an agenda elaborated and agreed by the previous one. The various agenda items trigger three years of technical and regulatory studies performed within the study groups of the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) to support the work of the conference by providing possible alternative options to satisfy the requirements expressed by the agenda item. The importance of global discussions for ensuring interference-free operations of satellite systems led the ITU to create two study groups handling space issues: Study Group 4 for satellite communications and radio-navigation and Study Group 7 for scientific satellites.
In October and November this year, more than 3,000 delegates representing most of ITU’s 193 member states, along with representatives from among ITU’s over 850 private-sector members, regional and international bodies, and more than 150 university members., will gather in the city of Sharm El-Sheikh at the kind invitation of the Government of Egypt, for the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference.
As with every WRC, the agenda for this year contains numerous items related to satellite communications: providing additional spectrum for satellite broadband internet access on moving platforms like ships, planes or trains; looking for a harmonized band for telemetry and telecommand of small satellites; setting the operational conditions of non-geostationary satellite systems in the 50/40 GHz range; providing additional spectrum in the same range for geostationary satellite systems; regulating the deployment of megaconstellations of non-geostationary satellite systems to prevent radio-frequency warehousing.
As you can see from this non-exhaustive list, the space industry is developing major innovative technologies that will be discussed in Sharm El-Sheikh, and I am sure that member states will find consensual solutions to accommodate them in the Radio Regulations. They will also consider what needs to be studied during the next four years to accommodate future radio needs. Space topics will certainly be high on the agenda.
INTEGRATING SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS IN THE 5G ECOSYSTEM
The ITU–R study groups not only conduct studies related to the agendas of World Radiocommunication Conferences but also elaborate recommendations, reports and handbooks (all of which are publicly and freely available) that contain global up-to-date technical standards related to satellite system equipment or best practices about spectrum and orbit resource management.
One of the current topics being studied by ITU–R Study Group 4 a of the conference process relates to the integration of satellite communications in the 5G ecosystem. As it was noted in the report issued in September 2018 by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development on The State of Broadband 2018: Broadband catalyzing sustainable development, “Satellite technology can also help relieve the congestion and overloading of networks. In future, it will support 5G and ensure connectivity in times or areas where terrestrial networks are unavailable.” It is, therefore, now essential to undertake the necessary studies to ensure that satellite communications will integrate with terrestrial systems to offer a seamless experience to the end-user.
In the context of the current surge of innovations in the satellite field and the forthcoming WRC, the ITU has recently published an edition of its ITU News Magazine dedicated to the presentation of a variety of applications and services provided by today’s communication satellites. I hope that you may find the articles of this release informative, interesting and useful.
ALL SPACE PLAYERS HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY
ITU is fortunate to have a wide category of members: not only 193 Member States but other members. Small and medium enterprises and startups will also soon be able to participate in ITU at a reduced fee as Associate Members. This enables us to accommodate the increasingly wide range of stakeholders now connected to the space industry to ensure that we move with the times and deliver the best possible solutions.
All space actors have a role to play in building a connected world, and I, therefore, invite you to get involved in ITU–R activities, not only in the coming months leading to the World Radiocommunication Conference, but also in the long term.
Mario Maniewicz is director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau.