The graying mandarins of the space industry participate in a little-known extreme sporting event: the quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference. That groan emanating from your regulatory counsel’s office means that we are now officially in the run-up to the monthlong treaty-making forum where your company’s use of spectrum will be disputed among 191 governments. What may not be obvious is that in a scant 18 months, the industry has an opportunity to deliver itself of a spectrum stimulus that will keep companies up and down the mobile satellite value chain in business for years to come.

In January 2012, the International Telecommunication Union will consider whether it should allocate more spectrum to mobile satellite services. These radio conferences rarely devote so much time to consideration of a subject that is directly connected to the well-being of a satellite service. But if the conference does decide to grant the industry more spectrum, the international community will deliver a major fillip to the space industry, and to the cause of broadband competition globally.

There are two little-known facts about the mobile satellite industry. The first is that mobile satellite networks operate with severe shortages of spectrum. The second is that developments in technology have finally brought satellites to the brink of the mass market. Taken together, these facts have driven governments to accept that the next World Radiocommunication Conference should decide whether mobile satellite services need more spectrum after all — and if so, how much. If this idea of more spectrum has piqued your interest, the matter is referred to as “Agenda Item 1.25” — a banal name for a valuable opportunity.

Leaving aside for a moment how important it is to entities that build, operate or receive mobile satellite services that new spectrum be found to allow for growth, there also has been a shift in focus that stands to drive a whole new pillar of the space industry — if the spectrum can be found in 2012. That new pillar is mobile broadband, enabled by satellites with the power to reach small, portable or hand-held terminals. These networks provide high data throughput (that’s “broadband” to you and me) that not only offers real competition with parts of the terrestrial mobile market, but also enhances those applications that are the reserved domain of satellites: environmental monitoring, infrastructure protection and public safety, fleet and aeronautical telematics, and mobile broadcast.

In validating the business case for these new services, operators have surveyed more than just their usual constituencies. They have not had to look too far beyond them, either: Groups that have been in the news over the past months and years, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Spill Control Organization, the National Climatic Data Center, and international medical and infrastructure relief groups all rely on mobile satellite services in the speedy completion of their business. And they want more. The International Committee of the Red Cross has indicated that the growth in its usage over the past five years points to a need for more capacity, and smaller terminals, in the next five years. And as these users consume more bandwidth, they also want more affordable bandwidth. Any future flexibility on cost, of course, remains a hostage to the present congestion, and therefore makes the effort to secure more spectrum both a matter of urgency and, insofar as there are no substitutes for mobile satellite in many humanitarian cases, a matter of conscience also.

The caution here is that manufacturers, launch providers, insurers, software developers, operators, handset designers and users should not be asleep as we move into the final countdown. The work required to get governments to recognize this timely opportunity is manageable, but requires all stakeholders to pull their weight. As the treaty-making conference approaches, the space industry, at least, must get behind this priority. Only then can the ironman of spectrum management, that marathon of meetings, the World Radiocommunication Conference, be moved to grant the spectrum stimulus that will help keep this industry aloft, and even flying high.


Gregory Francis is managing director of Access Partnership, a London-based consulting firm that specializes in international telecommunications trade, licensing and regulatory issues.