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Satellite matters

Serving the satellite community: Efficient use of the spectrum/orbit resource

Yvon Henri, Chief of the ITU Space Services Department

Efficient use of the spectrum/orbit resource is crucial in efforts to promote worldwide telecommunication development. The challenge for ITU, and thus for administrations and the satellite community, is to ensure that continuing the vital work of recording frequency assignments in the Master International Frequency Register (MIFR) results in frequencies and orbital positions being used in a rational, equitable, efficient and economic way.

The procedures for recording frequency assignments pertaining to space services are enshrined in the Radio Regulations. The question arises of whether, with existing procedures, ITU and the Radio Regulations bring added value to administrations and the satellite community. More specifically, what mechanisms or strategies could be employed to ensure efficient use of the spectrum/orbit resource and to improve the current international system for managing satellite spectrum?

Conferences seek improvements

The need to improve satellite spectrum management has already exercised the minds of participants at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences in Antalya in 2006 and Guadalajara in 2010, as well as at the World Radiocommunication Conference held in Geneva in 2007 (WRC-07). In particular, WRC-07 invited administrations, satellite operators and industry to be forward-looking in seeking ways to improve the procedures governing access to orbits and frequencies in order to reflect the latest technologies (Resolution 86 (Rev.WRC-07)), as well as to develop concepts that enhance the Radio Regulations to meet the demands of current, emerging and future radio applications (Resolution 951 (Rev.WRC-07)). The Conference also invited the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) to carry out studies on procedures for the measurement and analysis of the application of the basic principles contained in Article 44 of the ITU Constitution (Resolution 80 (Rev.WRC-07)).

ITU workshops on the efficient use of the spectrum/orbit resource

To help respond to the challenges facing the satellite community in relation to the efficient use of the spectrum/orbit resource, the Radiocommunication Bureau (the Bureau) started discussing matters with interested parties. This began in 2008 when the Chairman of the EMC Symposium invited the Bureau to chair a one-day session on “Efficient use of spectrum/orbit by satellite systems” during the Symposium held that year in Wroclaw, Poland.

As a follow-up, the Bureau held a series of open workshops on the same topic. Each of these workshops attracted from 100 to 150 participants, including top-level representatives from administrations, satellite operators and industry, as well as others with an interest in the subject, such as ICT companies and different stakeholders. The discussions focused on practical regulatory approaches that could increase the accuracy and transparency of the MIFR and help in coordinating satellite networks. A workshop in Geneva on 6 May 2009 was followed by one in Singapore on 16 and 17 June 2010 at the invitation of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. The Bureau then organized a panel debate on 15 September 2010 at the 20th international EMC Symposium in Wroclaw, and a one-day workshop in Almaty (Kazakhstan) during the International Seminar on Advanced Spectrum Management (12-16 September 2011).

Participants saw ITU’s satellite recording process as the best example of the management of common international property to date. They also recognized that it was the only means in place today to ensure an interference-free and controlled environment for satellite operation. Participants in the workshops encouraged the Bureau to pursue its efforts to remove unused satellite frequency assignments from the MIFR and to continue to promote discussions on strategies to make the system more efficient. An obvious place to raise some of the ideas expressed during the workshops would be at the World Radiocommunication Conference to be held in Geneva from 23 January to 17 February 2012 (WRC-12), in the context of WRC-12 agenda item 7 dealing with Resolution 86 (Rev.WRC-07) and agenda item 8.1 on the Report of the Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau, particularly regarding the response to Resolution 80 (Rev.WRC-07).

Removing unused networks

Going from talk to action, ITU has taken a regulatory initiative to reduce the number of unused networks that clutter the spectrum/orbit and make entry difficult for newcomers. In Circular Letter CR/301 dated 1 May 2009, the Bureau requested all administrations to review the use of their recorded satellite networks, and to remove any unused frequency assignments and networks from the MIFR. In parallel, the Bureau used some provisions of the Radio Regulations (such as No. 13.6) to enforce the removal of unused frequency assignments from the MIFR where their use had not been suspended in accordance with the Radio Regulations. The Bureau’s action along these lines has been pursued not only because some administrations identified cases to be examined, but also because the Bureau has attempted to verify the application of the relevant provisions of the Radio Regulations in some heavily used frequency bands.

The response has been fairly encouraging, and some administrations have requested the deletion of obsolete or unused entries from the MIFR. But these efforts by administrations to scrupulously and diligently apply the principles and provisions of the ITU Constitution, Convention and Radio Regulations do not appear to suffice. A survey undertaken by the Bureau in October 2009 compared the real occupancy of the geostationary orbit (GSO), based on reliable information available, with the GSO satellite networks recorded in the MIFR where the date of bringing into use had been confirmed by the responsible administration. There were still some possible discrepancies.

The Bureau has been carefully scrutinizing all the information available from external sources (GSO satellite databases, corporate websites and so on) as well as internal sources – Space Network Systems/Space Plans Systems/ and Space Network List (SNS/SPS and SNL) databases – and correspondence relating to confirmation of the bringing into use of satellite networks, No. 11.49 suspension, and Resolution 49 information). Concentrating its efforts on the most heavily used frequency bands, namely 3 400-4 800 MHz, 5 725-7 075 MHz, 10.70-13.25 GHz, 13.75-14.8 GHz, 17.3-20.2 GHz, 21.4-22 GHz, 24.75-25.25 GHz and 27-30 GHz, the Bureau identified around 325 satellite networks that might not correspond to any existing operating satellites.

There are, however, numerous factors and uncertainties to be considered. The Bureau does not have access to complete information, and some of its information may not fully correspond to reality. The Bureau therefore always requests clarification from the administrations involved.

By 1 January 2012, of the satellite networks investigated by the Bureau, the notifying administrations had provided clarifications and confirmed regular use for 142 satellite networks. In 21 of those cases, the notifying administration referred to Article 48 of the ITU Constitution, which allows Member States to “retain their entire freedom with regard to military installations”, but also requires that “when these installations take part … in services governed by the Administrative Regulations, they must, in general, comply with the regulatory provisions for the conduct of such services”. For 26 of the satellite networks investigated, the notifying administrations had provided clarifications and requested the application of No. 11.49 of the Radio Regulations. A total of 145 of the networks investigated had been suppressed either at the request of the administrations concerned or by the Bureau in the absence of information on the bringing into use and continuity of operation of the networks (more than 45 per cent of the investigated satellite networks!). Clarification is still pending for 12 satellite networks.

In its efforts to remove unused frequency assignments from the MIFR, the Bureau encountered difficulties in the application of the Radio Regulations, in particular No. 13.6 and various associated provisions contained in articles, appendices and resolutions. Some of these difficulties are outlined below.

What do “bringing into use” and “bringing into regular operation” really mean?

The concept of “bringing into use” originally seemed self-evident. Nowadays, the multiplicity of possible scenarios for bringing a satellite network filing into use (by launching a new satellite, by moving an existing satellite from one position to another, or by using a different satellite as a temporary stopgap), coupled with the persisting cases of fictitious frequency assignments recorded in the MIFR but not actually in operation, have made the need for a clearer understanding of the concept acute.

Also, there is no definition of the concept of “bringing into regular operation” in the Radio Regulations, and many of the current controversies related to satellite network filings are linked with this concept. In the early days of satellite network filings, the Bureau’s application of provisions regarding bringing into regular operation was uncontroversial. Now, however, with the growing difficulties that administrations face in obtaining suitable new GSO positions and frequencies, the lack of a definition is causing problems.

In the context of defining “bringing into use” and “bringing into regular operation”, the discussions during the workshops focused on the following questions. What should be on board a satellite at the time of confirmation of its bringing into use? What amount of the recorded frequency assignments should be in use? To what extent should the technical characteristics of the satellite in operation match the characteristics of the filed satellite network? How long should a satellite network be in use for a recorded assignment to be considered as being in regular operation?

Over the past two years, when examining the conformity of satellite networks with No. 11.44 and No. 11.47 of the Radio Regulations, the Bureau has looked for information available from external sources (for example, GSO satellite databases, Satellite Technical User Guide, and corporate websites) on the operating satellites, along with any available elements of information indicating the existence of payload in the frequency ranges of interest, in order to substantiate claims that a satellite network has been brought into regular operation. Whenever clarifications have been needed, the Bureau has contacted the notifying administration concerned and, based on the response, taken further action accordingly.

The Bureau now considers that, for operation to be qualified as “regular”, a satellite should be present and operating at an orbital location for a minimum of three months. The Bureau nevertheless recognizes that the way it is applying the concept of “bringing into regular operation” is not explicitly specified in the Radio Regulations as they stand. The Bureau also recognizes that the duration of operation is not the only factor to be considered.

It may prove difficult to draw up satisfactory regulatory texts to clarify the application of provisions that refer to “bringing into use “ or “bringing into regular operation”, particularly as regards the type of information to be provided and the reliability of such information. But an ITU-agreed understanding is needed to ensure a clear and stable regulatory framework.

Should the Radiocommunication Bureau verify the reliability of information?

The role of the Bureau is to receive information on satellite networks from notifying administrations, and then to identify any inconsistencies in that information. If there are inconsistencies, the Bureau then requests clarification from the notifying administration concerned. ITU does not at present have the tools either to corroborate or to invalidate the factual information submitted by administrations.

Provision No. 13.6 of the Radio Regulations indicates possible actions that the Bureau can take within the framework of maintenance of the MIFR “whenever it appears from reliable information available that a recorded assignment has not been brought into regular operation”. Because all formal information regarding the status of a frequency assignment is provided by the notifying administration of that assignment, the Bureau may find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge such information.

Administrations and satellite operators have welcomed the Bureau’s proactive approach under No. 13.6 of the Radio Regulations to question information on the operation of satellite networks whenever doubts exist about such operation. Indeed, administrations and satellite operators have encouraged the Bureau to pursue its actions along these lines. Given that the current role of the Bureau is to enforce – but not necessarily to investigate – the application of the Radio Regulations, WRC-12 may wish to consider mandating the Bureau to continue performing systematic, regular reviews of the MIFR with the aim of removing fictitious recorded frequency assignments. The Bureau would do this in addition to performing ad hoc case-by-case investigations at the request of administrations, as it does at present. Such a mandate would increase the efficiency of the process.

The reliability of information is obviously a crucial factor in the Bureau’s processing of satellite network filings. If administrations provide accurate data, the process will be more efficient.

Could due diligence requirements narrow the gap between information and reality?

The information provided under Resolution 49 is intended to demonstrate administrative due diligence, in plain words a certain degree of reality behind a satellite network filing. Administrations are supposed to provide information before the satellite is launched and before the satellite network begins to operate. In fact, the information to be submitted refers to a contractual delivery window for the spacecraft manufacturer and a launch or in-orbit delivery window for the launch service provider. There is no provision today in Resolution 49 to compel administrations to update their due diligence information. Such an update might be provided, for example, post-launch to confirm the information already provided, or after a change of spacecraft to support frequency assignments already recorded, or when use of a satellite network is resumed following a suspension.

Possible improvements to Resolution 49 might include the requirement to submit due diligence information within a certain number of days following both the bringing into use and the resumption of operation of frequency assignments to a satellite network. This would make it easier to match up real satellites (and, where applicable, their launch dates) with the orbital location brought into use. Another possible improvement would be a formal requirement to renew the information whenever changes occur. This requirement would also need to be linked with suspension under No. 11.49 of the Radio Regulations.

At a very basic level, the Bureau has difficulty in identifying satellites from Resolution 49 information. This means that the Bureau cannot track a satellite already filed under Resolution 49, in order to avoid the same satellite being recorded as operational at several orbital locations simultaneously. One possible way to increase transparency in this context would be to give a specific ITU identification code to each satellite.

Along the same lines, in order to give the Bureau a better understanding of the satellite in place, more accurate information (including, for example, payload diagrams) might also be provided on the actual coverage, power capabilities and transponder frequency plans. This information could be required either under an extended version of Resolution 49 or as part of the notification information required under Article 11 of the Radio Regulations, or via both Resolution 49 and Article 11. The extra information could be provided along with the confirmation of bringing into use of the frequency assignments.

How did a fix become a fixture?

In an ideal world, new satellite networks would be fully coordinated with existing networks before being put into operation. The reality is, of course, less than perfect, and No. 11.41 of the Radio Regulations provides some flexibility for a satellite network to be notified and recorded without completing all required coordination. To some extent, therefore, No. 11.41 precludes “virtual satellites” (that exist only on paper) from blocking the recording of real new networks. This provision became even more important when the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2000 adopted No. 11.44.1, which introduced a deadline for submitting to the Bureau the first notice for the recording of satellite network assignments.

But what started out as a fix has now become mainstream. The MIFR shows that more than 80 per cent of satellite networks so far submitted for notification purposes will finally be recorded with a reference to No. 11.41 (missing coordination agreements).

The trend of recording satellite networks under No. 11.41 will result in a burden for administrations. The number of reported interference cases between such networks that are supposed to be in operation is surprisingly low. This may indicate that the characteristics used during the coordination of such networks are more interference “aggressive” or “sensitive” than those actually used in operation. This, in turn, makes coordination between administrations unnecessarily difficult.

There is general agreement that provision No. 11.41 is necessary for the ITU recording procedure because it allows for coordination to continue beyond the regulatory deadline. But use of No. 11.41 presents the drawback of there being numerous missing coordination agreements. Are there any means to compel administrations to coordinate, in order to avoid misuse of No. 11.41? An administrative means of enforcement, for example by requiring the holding of coordination meetings, would be counterproductive and burdensome both for administrations and for the Bureau. A more effective approach would be to facilitate the completion of coordination.

One way of making it easier for administrations to coordinate would be to combat the practice of setting overly aggressive or sensitive parameters, which block coordination. Administrations could be encouraged to file satellite network characteristics that are more reasonable, and that better fit the required quality for the normal operation and delivery of expected services (even allowing for a flexibility factor to take account of forecast use). It would certainly help with coordination if administrations reviewed or deleted the existing unrealistically aggressive assignments recorded in the MIFR. Criteria for self-compatibility of a submitted satellite network (for example, in terms of orbital separation) might also help in facilitating coordination and warrant further study by the competent ITU-R study groups.

Another approach to resolving the problem would be to limit coordination requirements to genuine cases. By removing obsolete filings, reviewing current trigger values in order to shorten the coordination arc, preventing networks outside the arc from entering into coordination, and introducing coordination power flux-density limits, for example, it would be possible to avoid unnecessary coordination.

Finally, the Bureau could delete coordination data for which notification has been already filed. In fact, the Bureau intends to initiate that action during 2012.

Space monitoring

More administrations and satellite operators are establishing monitoring stations, and are expressing the wish that such facilities be used within the international monitoring system (in accordance with Article 16 of the Radio Regulations).

The primary goal of such systems is to assist administrations in the prompt elimination of harmful interference. But beyond that, WRC-12 may also wish to consider the possible use of the international monitoring system to ensure that the international regulatory framework is being properly applied. This idea was considered by WRC-97 under its Recommendation 36 on the role of international monitoring in reducing apparent congestion in the use of orbit and spectrum resources. WRC-12 might consider giving the Bureau authority for space monitoring, comparable to the authority already given to the Bureau for terrestrial monitoring. Collection and dissemination of information might be based on Recommendation ITU-R SM.1267 on the “Collection and Publication of Monitoring Data to Assist Frequency Assignment for Geostationary Satellite Systems”.

Spectrum pricing

Economic theory and experience worldwide suggest that spectrum/orbit management for satellite systems could be improved by using economic methods to supplement the existing technical and regulatory approaches. The aim would be to make more efficient use of a limited common resource, not to secure financial gain for ITU or anyone else. One possibility would be to offer administrative incentives by introducing spectrum pricing.

The price of spectrum could be determined on the basis of the volume of spectrum used and the value of a unit of resource. For communication satellite systems, the effective volume of the resource used could be determined by means of technical coefficients characterizing each individual system in terms of its potential for causing and suffering interference. Obviously, technical and economic studies would be needed, and they could be entrusted to ITU-R study groups. The revision of Report ITU-R SM.2012-2 on economic aspects of spectrum management might provide some guidance in this respect.

Will WRC-12 meet these challenges?

The outcome of WRC-12 lies in the future and is unknown. Given the possibilities outlined in this article, however, there seems to be a real opportunity to make the use of the spectrum/orbit resource more efficient. With a concerted effort, we can surely reduce or even remove the obstacles that impede the development and bringing into operation of new satellite networks.



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Updated: 2018-08-15