The ITU’s World Telecommunication Policy Forum has as its topic ‘Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite’. We know that satellites are already used for communications, so what are these new systems, and what will they offer to users?
Satellites have in fact been used for international communications for 30 years. The current crop of satellites carrying broadcasting and telecommunications traffic are geostationary systems. However, the high altitude of these satellites (36,000 km) results in time delays of the signal that could make them disadvantageous for applications involving direct communications to the user via a small, handheld terminal. Additionally, their high orbit can result in signal attenuation, requiring more powerful transmitters and receivers which are very difficult to incorporate into a pocket-sized unit. As well, users in higher latitudes can experience service problems due to the degree of satellite orbital inclination, which can result in signals being blocked by topographical features or buildings.
Advances in satellite technology have resulted in plans to operate new kinds of satellite systems which could offer users a way to make phone calls, send faxes and transfer data from and to anywhere in the world. These new non-geostationary systems, known as LEOs or MEOs, are typically between 700 and 10 000 km above the earth, and plan to offer global coverage via ‘constellations’ of satellites which move around the earth, transferring signals to earth stations or between each other.
The proposed systems promise much – global coverage, as well as access to sophisticated communications for remote areas or parts of the world with poor fixed line telecommunications infrastructure. They also bring with them, though, their own particular technical problems some of which to date remain unresolved. In addition, there are complex issues of a political, socio-economic and regulatory nature which must be sorted out before the systems can begin offering services. Securing global licensing agreements which are able to take into account issues of local policy, national sovereignty, economic implications for national carriers, and technical aspects such as equipment standards, will be among the biggest hurdles potential operators must overcome.
The rapidly changing telecommunications environment has created a need for ITU Members to review and coordinate their telecommunications policies, legislation and regulations. ITU Members recognized that, since the Union is the leading international organization in the field of telecommunications, it is the appropriate forum for discussion of these types of issues. In establishing the Policy Forum, the ITU Member States were very clear that the Policy Forum would not produce prescriptive regulatory outcomes with binding force. In line with the ‘forum’ concept, the primary purpose is to facilitate dialogue and information exchange. However, the event is not simply a ‘talk shop’. ITU Members have decided that the Forum shall prepare reports and, if appropriate, opinions for consideration by ITU Members and relevant meetings of the ITU.
In 1994, the ITU’s Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference accepted a proposal put forward by Japan that the Union convene World Telecommunication Policy Forums to discuss and if possible reach consensus on issues which would not normally be dealt with by existing ITU events or the normal work of the Union’s three Sectors (Radiocommunication, Telecommunications Standardization, and Development).
The Japanese proposal stated that the kinds of issues raised by the advent of new technologies, such as MSS, were often outside the mandates of the ITU Sectors and regular ITU conferences. It stated, additionally, that many new technologies and services required international cooperation with regard to many aspects besides technical standardization or allocation of radio frequency spectrum, and that a Forum would serve the purpose of establishing a framework to provide guidance to ITU Sectors and telecommunications administrations. The proposal was accepted by the Union’s membership, which resolved that one or two such events should be convened before the 1998 Plenipotentiary Conference.
Accordingly, the Forum will offer a platform for the discussion of global issues which go beyond the domain of any single country. The objective of the event is to discuss and exchange views and information on broad telecommunication policy issues, technological advances, service options and opportunities, infrastructure development and financial business considerations. It will address issues such as the global information infrastructure, trade in telecommunications services, personal communications services, new methods of radio spectrum management, open access to networks and the transmission and reception of transborder television broadcasts. Special attention will be given to the interests and needs of the developing countries where modern technologies and services can contribute significantly to telecommunication infrastructure development.
The Forum will work on the basis of a report prepared by the ITU Secretariat, contributions from Member countries (irrespective of whether they take part in the meeting or not), as well as views expressed during the discussions.
The Forum cannot produce prescriptive regulatory outcomes or outputs with binding force. However, it shall prepare reports and, where appropriate, opinions for consideration by ITU Members and relevant ITU meetings.
Forum invitations have been sent to all ITU Member States and Sector Members, as well as to organizations which have the right to participate in ITU meetings. Other interested parties and members of the public may attend in exchange for payment of a 200CHF fee, but may not directly participate.
The WTPF will represent a real opportunity for everyone involved in telecommunications to present their point of view, and even to influence the future direction of the industry as we move toward the next millennium.
The advantages of new GMPCS systems are clearly many. But they bring with them too, many problems which need ironing out before operators can begin offering services to users. Issues of sovereignty over national communications, interconnection between existing networks and new services, and global licensing of both operators and equipment will be very challenging to resolve.
Key issues to be discussed at the first Forum will include: globalization and international co-operation; the role of GMPCS in the developing world; methods to facilitate transborder use of GMPCS terminals; and policy and regulatory issues of GMPCS systems.
Contributions to the Forum preparatory process have identified a number of general issues that need to be addressed in relation to the items on the agenda of the event:
The World Telecommunication Policy Forum is open to participation by all ITU State Members and Sector Members, and to attendance by observer organizations, the media, and the general public.
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