Wireless Industry Gets Access to Different Frequencies


Satellite networks won continued priority access to C-band radio spectrum at a meeting of global regulators thanks to key backing from African and South American nations.

In what satellite-fleet operators described as a precedent-setting victory, the four-week World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) rejected attempts by backers of terrestrial wireless broadband networks to be granted a global right to use spectrum between 3.4 and 4.2 gigahertz. The conference was held Oct. 22-Nov. 16 in Geneva.

“They wanted a global authorization in C-band – an advertisement, if you will, that this was an appropriate place to authorize broadband terrestrial wireless,” said Kalpak S.Gude, vice president for regulatory affairs at Intelsat, the world’s largest satellite-fleet operator. “They were told by the global community that they should look elsewhere, and they did get spectrum elsewhere.”

It was the most contentious issue at WRC, a meeting held every four years. This year’s event drew some 2,600 delegates from most of the world’s nations. WRC is the decision-making conference held by the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate.

The stakes for satellite operators were high enough to force companies unaccustomed to working together to join forces months in advance of the conference to lobby national delegations and employ the same wine-and-dine tactics that have been used at previous WRC meetings.

“It was a new activity for us,” said John Lothian, vice president for space development at satellite-fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. “We’ve learned a lot about how to organize ourselves when there is a global threat to the continued functioning of the business. We are now engaged in a battle for spectrum, and in the longer term we will need to defend Ku-band as well.”

Most satellite telecommunications networks are operated in Ku- and C-band, and many mobile satellite systems use C-band for links to hub stations. Mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London shared responsibilities with SES and Intelsat for lobbying wavering delegations on behalf of the “No Change” position on C-band.

These companies were aided by eight nonprofit organizations including the Global VSAT Forum.

The principal opponents of the satellite sector were found in Europe, where governments backed a global authorization for broadband wireless technologies, lumped under the name IMT, in C-band.

The Luxembourg delegation was the lone dissident in the Europe delegation. Luxembourg was defending SES’s interests ahead of those of wireless network operators that found backing among other European governments.

“It was very difficult,” said Roland Thurmes, head of spectrum management at the Luxembourg Institute of Regulation. “We were completely isolated in our position. All the other [West European] countries were in favor” of opening C-band to IMT technologies.

Intelsat and SES, which are the two biggest commercial fixed satellite services operators, estimate that they employ C-band for 60 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of their global capacity.

Even those not aligned with the satellite interests acknowledged that WiMax and other IMT technologies wipe out any satellite signals in their immediate vicinity once they are switched on. C-band is used almost everywhere, but especially in regions where heavy rainfall is common because C-band transmissions fade less in rain than do Ku- or Ka-band broadcasts.

Because of this, African and South American delegations helped lead the WRC away from issuing a worldwide approval of IMT in C-band.

The generally pro-satellite stance those regions took at WRC was aided by the fact that, in recent years, they have developed their own regional satellite operators. Sub-Saharan Africa has been the last major region of the world not to have its own satellite operator, a situation that changed in 2007 with the launch of a large telecommunications satellite by Nigeria and the planned December launch of the first satellite for the pan-African Rascom organization.

In a Nov. 16 press briefing organized by the pro-satellite group, Festus Yusufu Narai Daudu of Nigeria’s communications ministry said the existence of these two satellite systems has helped drive African defense of C-band for satellite use.

“In the past, Africa has been at WRC but has never been effective,” Daudu said. “We are proud to be associated with this achievement. The importance of C-band cannot be overemphasized.”

An undetermined number of African nations – the satellite group estimated eight or nine countries – insisted on signing a footnote to the WRC text reserving their right to use portions of C-band for IMT networks. But Daudu said these nations agreed that they must not interfere with satellite systems in neighboring countries, and that any interference is decided in favor of satellite transmissions.

Going into the WRC, several South American nations had said they wanted to use part of C-band for IMT networks. That did not change, but they too agreed to limit their positions to a footnote in the WRC decision that committed to avoiding interference with satellite systems operated in other nations. The satellite group estimated that 14 nations reserved their right to use the lower portion of the bandwidth at issue – 3.4-3.6 gigahertz

– for IMT deployment under these conditions.

“Africa showed us the way to reach a compromise to solve some of the issues,” said Sergio Scarabino of Argentina’s communications ministry. Argentina is weighing whether to launch its own national satellite telecommunications system, joining Mexico, Brazil and, in the coming months, a system jointly owned by several Andean nations, and the Venesat system under construction in China for Venezuela and Uruguay.

“As our countries get more involved in this industry – not just as users, but as operators – we should be more interested in working to keep the spectrum” from being compromised,” Scarabino said.

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