Satellite industry prepares for WRC-19 on multiple fronts

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This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Four years ago, when regulators gathered for the World Radiocommunication Conference, the satellite industry was united on one primary issue: stopping cellular companies from taking C-band spectrum away from satellite operators.

This fall when the International Telecommunication Union’s next WRC begins, the satellite industry will have its attention divided on multiple fronts ranging from new rules for smallsats to losing satellite airwaves to 5G cellular networks, creating a fear that efforts could be spread too thin to give each topic the attention it needs.

“This conference is unique in that normally we have one — maybe two — what I would classify as the highly politicized agenda items,” Charles Glass, chief of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s International Spectrum Policy Division, said May 8 at the Satellite 2019 conference. “This one has about six, and there are a couple of others hiding out there that could quickly grow to that level.”

WRC-19 takes place Oct. 28 to Nov. 22 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. There, regulators from around the world will debate rules intended to ensure the best use of radiofrequency spectrum.

One familiar item on the conference agenda is the allocation of spectrum for mobile networks. Although C-band is not on the agenda, Ka-, Q- and V-band are. Satellite operators are investing heavily in Ka-band for broadband connectivity, and are just beginning to introduce hardware utilizing Q- and V-band.

Hazem Moakkit, Intelsat’s vice president of corporate and spectrum strategy, said the satellite industry’s recurring battle with cellular operators for spectrum has become so regular that he likened it to Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie with Bill Murray as a TV meteorologist stuck reliving the same day. “Every WRC we get another round of demands for additional spectrum for mobile,” he said.

Other topics are in response to new industry trends. Regulators are preparing to introduce deployment milestones on satellite megaconstellations in response to the heightened demand for spectrum for such systems. Details such as how long an operator will be given to deploy minimum percentages of its constellation will be subject to debate.

Jennifer Manner, EchoStar’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs (left), said mobile networks have much more spectrum they could gain at WRC-19 than satellite operators. Credit: Brian Berger/SpaceNews

Regulators are also preparing to establish a new framework for so-called “short-duration satellites” that orbit for three years or less. Operators of such satellites, mainly nano- and pico-satellites, have sometimes launched them without informing the ITU, creating new headaches around signal interference.

Short-duration satellite operators don’t always use normal regulatory paths, Glass said, creating challenges exacerbated by their popularity as a low-cost means to reach space.

“These systems are proliferating at an ungodly rate at the moment,” he said. “They are being put up quite often in large clouds of small devices, some of which only last a matter of weeks [and] some of which of course last longer. This is an issue we are going to have to find a way to address.”

The ITU has lumped constellation milestones, short-duration satellites and other issues under a category called “Agenda Item 7,” which took up 170 pages of the ITU’s WRC-19 preparatory report in February.

Jennifer Manner, EchoStar’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs, described Agenda Item 7 as a “essentially a conference in itself.”

Manner said there are opportunities for the satellite industry to gain new spectrum at WRC-19, citing 51.4 to 54.4 gigahertz as an example. She cautioned, though that cellular operators could dominate any spectrum gains.

“We have to remember that there’s 33 gigahertz of spectrum in the bands that are being looked at for [International Mobile Telecommunication] for terrestrial 5G. When you look at what’s been advocated for by the satellite industry, it’s protection in some of the bands for individually licensed earth stations, things like gateway earth stations, and then there’s a need for a certain amount of that spectrum for user terminals,” she said.

Glass said many studies on spectrum sharing have been completed to assess how satellite, cellular and other technologies can coexist in the 33 gigahertz up for discussion.

For the satellite industry, spectrum bands adjacent to satellite bands must also be studied to understand the risk of interference spilling over, since satellite signals are typically much weaker than terrestrial signals by the time they reach Earth.

“There will be a lot of work in making sure that the satellite community is well positioned going forward into the future, but at the same time making sure that the actions we take in the conference don’t hinder current and planned systems as well,” Glass said.

Future agenda items

One wild card satellite operators and regulators say they can’t predict is what issues will be proposed as future agenda items for the next WRC conference in 2023.

“Future agenda items are always underestimated,” Manner said. “Most countries don’t start preparing for future agenda items until very late in the cycle, and even during the meetings I think most delegations are sitting there going ‘what should we do?’ It’s always a last-minute issue, but it’s critical. It shapes the future agendas of the conferences.”

Early indications are that repurposing C-band for cellular networks could be a future agenda item, Intelsat’s Moakkit said. Some regions of the world are anticipated to ask for half or even all the 3.4-4.2 gigahertz used by satellite operators, he said.

“That is of high concern to us,” he said.

Leonardo de Morais, a commissioner at Brazil’s telecom regulator Anatel, said Brazil plans to auction 300 megahertz of spectrum domestically from 3.3 to 3.6 gigahertz for cellular signals, but does not plan to go beyond that yet.

“We have to start with what is good, not with what is optimum,” he said. “I think that the satellite has a very important role in the C-band, so I think it’s too soon [to take more].”

Moakkit said Intelsat is also planning to introduce its own future agenda item on allowing aeronautical Wi-Fi in larger swaths of Ku-band.