Phantom Satellites Among Tough Issues Regulators Tackling at WRC

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PARIS — New rules aiming to eliminate phantom satellite systems that do not exist but nonetheless are registered as using precious radio spectrum will be one of several topics on the agenda for global regulators meeting in Geneva Jan. 23-Feb. 17.

Other proposed regulations would provide radio spectrum for unmanned aerial vehicles communicating with telecommunications satellites from civil airspace; additional frequency assignments for ultra-high-definition and 3D television; protection of frequencies used by Earth observation satellites; and new frequency bands for satellite-based maritime surveillance systems.

This year’s World Radiocommunication Conference, WRC-12, assembles some 3,000 delegates from more than 150 of the 193 member nations of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations affiliate that regulates satellite orbital slots and wireless broadcast frequencies.

As has been the case in recent WRC conferences, held every three or four years, participating nations will debate whether the ITU’s current rules are well adapted to the increasing demands for satellite slots and broadcast frequencies, or should be changed to make more efficient and equitable use of these resources.

Much of the debate occurs outside of public view, and many of the relevant documents are not released.

Because of that, outsiders are often surprised to discover, through those documents that are publicly accessible, how disorganized the conduct of satellite communications remains despite a half-century of spectacular growth into what is now a multibillion-dollar industry that many governments view as of strategic national interest.

With each passing year, an industry that could serve as a business school model of the advantages of consolidation due to its high fixed costs nonetheless welcomes new players, mainly governments that a few years ago would not have been on anyone’s list of likely satellite operators. Bolivia, Laos, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are recent examples. Bangladesh is mulling its own satellite, as is Mongolia.

And these are real satellites. Phantom spacecraft are more numerous.

One document produced by the ITU for WRC-12 delegates illustrates the current state of affairs.

In a survey conducted in late 2009 of what satellites systems were active in the most sought-after radio frequencies, the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau discovered 325 satellite systems that held reserved slots and frequencies but “might not correspond to any existing, operating satellites,” the ITU said in the document.

Twenty-one of these systems were later identified by their sponsoring governments as military systems, which under the ITU Constitution are subject to separate treatment.

Digging further, and asking national governments to defend their use of these orbital positions and frequencies, the ITU was able to eliminate 145 systems from its books — 45 percent of the total. Either the governments that had registered the nonexistent systems voluntarily canceled them following the ITU inquiry, or the ITU took upon itself the task of removing them from its master registry.

“Clarification is still pending for 12 satellite networks,” the ITU said.

A separate document prepared for WRC-12 by ITU Radiocommunication Bureau Director Francois Rancy said the increasing demand by real satellite systems for orbits and frequencies “may soon exceed current availability.”

The ITU’s procedures, Rancy said, “no longer seem to be aligned with the principles on which they were based. This concerns, in particular, the principle of equitable access” to satellite spectrum that is a pillar of the ITU Constitution.

WRC-12 will be asked to tackle the issue of what a satellite operator needs to do to prove it is “bringing into use” a satellite network that has been duly noted in the ITU’s master registry.

In recent years satellite operators that are unable to launch intended satellites within the ITU deadlines have moved other satellites nearing retirement to new slots to register that they are using the frequencies. In this way, a single satellite may, during its life, be used to register multiple networks.

How long should an operator be obliged to maintain a satellite at a given location to satisfy ITU rules? There is no agreed-to standard today. The ITU has proposed that WRC-12 adopt a three-month minimum, a duration that several operators view as too strict.

“You can debate the number of days,” said John Purvis, chief counsel of satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, which operates the world’s second-largest fleet of commercial satellites after Intelsat of Washington and Luxemburg.

“What we are saying is that the operator makes a considerable commitment by locating a satellite at a slot for a number of days and we think 30 days is sufficient. It removes the ‘flyby satellite’ practice, which we agree should not be permitted,” Purvis said in a Jan. 26 interview. “There is substantial cost in fuel life to stop a satellite at an orbital position. With a 30-day requirement you have shown a serious commitment and investment.”

Kalpak Gude, a senior vice president at Intelsat, agreed.

“There is a significant cost in fuel life to bringing a satellite to a given orbital slot and then stopping it there,” Gude said in a Jan. 26 interview, adding that it is not clear who among large or small fleet operators would be put at an advantage with a longer or shorter minimum-stay regulation.

“Any number of days is going to be arbitrary,” Gude said. “The goal should be to add certainty and take out ambiguity. We think we have found a reasonable compromise at around 30 days. This will prevent flybys.”

Bashir Gwandu, executive director of the Nigerian Communications Commission and chairman of the ITU Radiocommunication Advisory Group, said developing nations in Africa are concerned that their relatively late arrival on the satellite communications scene will permanently limit their access to orbital slots and frequencies.

Nigeria has become a major player in sub-Saharan Africa’s satellite telecommunications development. Its Nigcomsat-1 was launched in 2007 but suffered on-board defects. Nigeria’s Chinese satellite and rocket provider in December launched Nigcomsat-1R, which is reported healthy in orbit.

Gwandu said African nations can live with a range of options on how many days a satellite must remain at a slot before being declared operational in regulatory terms. What is not acceptable, he said, is a system in which a single operator can reserve 100 orbital slots under ITU rules, thereby blocking access by other nations, without any intention of using the slots.

 

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