World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC23) in Dubai. Credit: ITU

The recent World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) in Dubai saw regulators and industry players from across the globe attempt to shape the future of telecom, satellite and space applications. After four weeks of intense discussions and debates, 43 new resolutions were approved, with 56 existing ones revised. With spectrum a finite resource, these decisions will be crucial to how space and satellite operations are carried out over the next few years.

Enhanced flexibility for satellite services

One of the major outcomes of the conference revolved around Agenda Items 1.15 and 1.16 on the use of mobile satellite terminals on ships and airplanes. Following WRC-23, these so-called Earth Stations in Motion have now received authorization to communicate with Ku-band geostationary (GSO) satellites and non-geostationary (NGSO) Ka-band satellites. This decision follows authorization by a previous WRC that allowed geostationary satellite operators to use the Ka-band to connect with mobile terminals. That approval enabled major industry players to provide broadband services to aircraft, ships and other vessels operating in remote areas. These capabilities have been extended for an even wider set of applications, including rebuilding communication infrastructure in regions where it may have been damaged or destroyed after a natural disaster.

Ensuring safer and more reliable communications was a theme across WRC-23, with regulatory actions designed to update the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. These actions included authorization to implement the latest e-navigation systems to optimize distress and emergency communications for vessels and sites found at sea. The use of Beidou was also provisionally recognized for this purpose, so long as it can be successfully coordinated with existing networks and interference eliminated.

Three additional identifications for high-altitude platforms as International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) base stations were also made at WRC-23. IMT is a term used by the International Telecommunication Union, the spectrum enforcement arm of the United Nations responsible for WRC-23, for broadband mobile systems. While several frequency bands below 2.7 GHz had already been identified for IMT before the conference, specific regulations for their operation in the 2 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands were adopted during WRC-23. These will underpin the development of mobile broadband services and should require minimal infrastructure. Able to utilize the same frequencies as existing mobile networks, these services can be used for reliable connectivity during critical or disaster recovery applications and extend service to remote areas that have historically been underserved.

New services and applications

Inter-satellite links were the focus of Agenda Item 1.17. During WRC-23, parties set out to determine appropriate regulatory frameworks for providing such links in suitable frequency bands. Following lengthy discussions, the decision was made to allocate Ka-band frequencies to inter-satellite services for space research, space operation and Earth-observing satellite applications. This included an extension to 29.5-30 GHz to ensure the protection of terrestrial services, with further considerations for NGSO systems with operational altitudes of 900 kilometers and for GSOs used in the fixed-satellite service.

Under Agenda Item 1.19, WRC-23 approved a new primary allocation to the fixed-satellite service in the 17.3- 17.7 GHz band in Region 2, which covers the Americas. This included a Power Flux-Density limit put in place to protect Region 1 (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) and Region 3 (Asia-Pacific) Appendix 30A assignments from the FSS downlink in Region 2.

Among the other significant decisions reached at the conference, 41 countries successfully applied the provisions of Resolution 559 (WRC-19), allowing them to replace their existing assignment in the broadcasting satellite service with a new one offering better performances.

WRC-27 and beyond

As regulators focus on the future, new agenda items have been tabled for WRC-27 (and WRC-31). Several discussions are set to be held regarding the use of mobile satellite services, with three agenda items in play for the next conference. These will consider low data rate and generic mobile satellite services, alongside direct connectivity between space stations and IMT user equipment such as standard cellular devices. Mobile satellite service space-to-space links are also a topic of interest, as is the use of Q/V-band from both GSO and NGSO to connect Earth Stations in Motion (mobile terminals).

Equitable access and unauthorized operations of NGSO are also two topics that will be heavily discussed over the next four years, alongside an Agenda Item on the development of communications on the lunar surface and between lunar orbit and the lunar surface.

The conference has also invited administrations to conduct technical studies on the Equivalent Power Flux Density limits, in order to ensure the continued protection of geostationary fixed satellite services and broadcasting satellite service networks, and to inform WRC-27 of the results of the studies, without any regulatory consequences. This will no doubt remain a contentious subject in the study cycle leading up to the next conference, with NGSO players holding the position that the existing Equivalent Power Flux Density limits no longer suit the demands of modern constellations. On the other hand, some geostationary operators maintain any changes to the rules would undermine and destabilize what has historically proven to be a successful regulatory framework for the space industry. This war of attrition means regulatory action has been deferred for now, with WRC-27 as a future battleground pending the conclusion of these studies.

With 151 member states signing the WRC-23 Final Acts, the decisions reached at the conference can now be put in place. To some regulators and operators, these actions will resemble a seismic shift in terms of how they operate in the future. For others, these may serve as ammunition for future debates set to play out over the coming years.

Alexis Martin and Jennifer Stone are the chief consulting officer and chief technical officer, respectively, at River Advisers, a satellite regulatory consultancy based in the Isle of Man.

This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.