TAMPA, Fla. — It will become increasingly challenging to protect national interests during treaty-level talks over how radio waves should be allocated for satellite connectivity, according to the ambassador who led U.S. efforts at the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23).

“We’re going to see, I think, a lot more satellite-related issues,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steve Lang said during a conference Jan. 22 in Washington, “as we have … more constellations going up, and those issues are going to continue to get more challenging.”

Lang led a U.S. delegation of nearly 200 people at WRC-23 in Dubai, an event the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) holds every four years to review and revise rules for the use of radio waves, including by satellites across different orbits. 

WRC-23 ended Dec. 15 after four weeks of talks with a mixed bag of resolutions for the space industry.

“We have made it a priority to create the environment that will enable new non-geostationary orbit systems (NGSO) or low Earth orbit systems like Starlink or Amazon’s Kuiper system that will provide internet broadband connectivity,” Lang said, “especially for remote areas with low latency.”

However, “we saw a lot of resistance,” he added, “and in fact, I would even say, an unfortunate bias against these NGSO systems” across WRC-23 talks.

SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon are based in the United States, which Lang said is leading the development of NGSO systems, and so some of the resistance is down to other countries seeking to advance their technological leadership and national security interests.

But “some countries were concerned about the impact that large megaconstellations could have on radio astronomy,” he added “or they were concerned about the future availability of orbital or spectrum resources for systems that we’re not thinking of yet.”

WRC-23 approved putting NGSO astronomy interference and equitable access issues up for study to be debated in 2027, the next time the ITU convenes nations to review and update international spectrum rules.

Still, Lang said he is happy with the outcomes WRC-23 overall.

“The way things came out were not always exactly as we envisioned — it was a negotiation — so there was some give and take, but in each of the areas that we prioritized, we did see progress,” he said.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly called on the United States to do more preparation for future World Radiocommunication Conferences. Credit: AEI webcast

Others speaking on a separate panel at the Washington conference, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) public policy think tank, said the United States could have benefitted more from WRC-23 with more preparation and strategy alignment. 

Umair Javed, senior vice president for spectrum at CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association), a trade association for the wireless sector in the United States, said domestic spectrum policy disputes had sidelined the country and conversations at WRC-23 about what the world should be doing with radio frequencies. 

“And that meant that the United States wasn’t as forceful in these conversations as it has been in the past,” Javed said on the panel. 

According to Javed, the U.S. came out of WRC-23 falling further behind other countries in plans to release so-called mid-band spectrum to private companies, frequencies sitting at a sweet spot for 5G performance and coverage — such as the C-band used by geostationary operators to broadcast TV.

Meanwhile, countries such as China and France were helping craft the future of 6G deployments globally in radio waves that are aligned with their interests.

“So we saw the ability of other countries to shape spectrum policy independently of U.S. priorities at this conference in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before,” he said.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly said on the same panel that part of the issue is the government only picked Lang to lead the U.S. delegation about two months before WRC-23 got underway, when ambassadors are typically identified at least a year in advance. Half the delegation were private sector advisers from companies keen to push for radio wave regulations that would suit their business needs. 

“Other countries aren’t having temporary ambassadors,” added O’Reilly, who now advises the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) consultancy.

“So we have to fix that process,” he said, “and that requires more than just, in the last couple of minutes, saying, okay, here’s our ambassador.”

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...