Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré,
Towards a Norm of No Harmful Interference
Since the launch of the first commercial satellites in the 1960s, the satellite industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise delivering a broad range of essential services to people around the globe.
Satellites are used to gather meteorological information, to provide instantaneous coverage of breaking news and sporting events – from the Beijing Olympics last summer to the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow last month – and to deliver direct-to-home entertainment services such as pay-TV and digital radio.
More crucially, perhaps, satellites also provide the critical navigation and tracking services used by aircraft, the maritime industry, and long-distance high-speed rail and road transport fleets. Scientific research satellites provide land survey and remote sensing data, HAM radio, radio astronomy and a range of earth science, marine science, and atmospheric research applications.
And new satellite-based early warning systems now being put in place will help communities around the world minimize the impact of a growing spate of natural disasters resulting from our planet’s rapidly changing climate.
As you might expect, all this activity taking place 36,000 kilometres above our heads, for the so-called GSO satellite networks, requires precise global planning and monitoring. Satellites cannot easily share exactly the same orbital position, nor can they receive and transmit their images, data or voice signals on exactly the same frequency as another neighbouring system, without intensive cooperation and discussion, to avoid the risk of interference.
Ladies and gentlemen,
ITU is the sole global agency charged with managing the world’s shared radio spectrum and orbital resources.
In line with our mandate to connect the world’s people through equitable and affordable access to information and communication technologies, we are charged with maintaining the Master International Frequency Register, with coordination of planned new satellite networks, and with ensuring systems operate according to the provisions of the Radio Regulations, the ITU-brokered binding international treaty governing the use of radiocommunication systems worldwide.
ITU’s work covers all types of civil and governmental satellite systems in all services – with the most popular being the Fixed Satellite Service, the Mobile Satellite Service and the Broadcasting Satellite Service. These systems – of which there are some 250 in current operation – deliver services for both commercial interests and governments.
Our work focuses on ensuring the essential services delivered over satellite systems can function as they should, without risk of what we call ‘harmful interference’. In the radiocommunication world, this term refers to interference between two operating radio frequencies that seriously degrades, obstructs or repeatedly interrupts either or both services.
Harmful interference is a potential problem for any kind of radiocommunication service. But for satellite systems, it is particularly problematic for a number of reasons – beyond the the laws of physics and the fact that radio waves do not stop at national borders.
One very important reason is that some satellite-borne services – such as air navigation for aircraft – have a crucial safety element that means interference is a very serious matter indeed.
Another is the sheer cost of manufacturing, launching and operating a satellite for 12 to 15 years – which runs into hundreds of millions of dollars a time.
A third is increasing overcrowding in space – particularly around ‘prime’ geostationary orbital slots – which is making it hard to ensure that new systems do not interfere with existing services.
Thirty years ago, when the satellite industry was relatively young, six degrees of spatial separation between geostationary satellites was considered crowded. Today, with demand for services driving the deployment of more and more space systems, ITU is dealing with spatial separation of as little as 0.5 degrees in the so called ‘high quality’ slots that position satellites to reach the largest number of potential users.
And space technology moves very fast. While we originally dealt with demands in the geostationary orbit at 6/4 gigahertz, we now get demands up around 100 gigahertz.
ITU’s coordination role for new satellite deployments involves complex technical calculations and liaison with national administrations whose satellite systems and terrestrial stations may be impacted by transmissions from a new satellite. We map any planned system against the precise operating characteristics of all relevant systems and stations already included in the Master International Frequency Register – to ensure that the new system will be able to operate free of interference from satellites already in orbit, and will not itself cause interference to existing services.
ITU coordination can be particularly crucial for systems deployed by countries in the developing world, where technical glitches can have a huge impact – either because of the difficulties in financing satellites in the first place, or because the total number of satellites serving developing regions is already lower than for developed parts of the world.
ITU satellite coordination is mandatory for ITU Member States – and with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for operating a satellite, very few satellite operators are prepared to take the risk of going it alone. Inclusion in ITU’s Master International Frequency Register confers the international rights and obligations of administrations, and in particular the international recognition and protection of their satellite system.
Lack of this protection can be catastrophic – as in the example of Protostar 1, which was launched in the eastern part of the orbit without ITU coordination. Subsequent interference with an existing Chinese satellite resulted in Protostar’s beams being shut down – yet this brand new satellite could have been delivering services, and generating revenues for its operator, for at least 15 years.
Whenever a case like this occurs, ITU works with all parties involved to try to find a mutually acceptable solution. But this still results in lengthy and costly delays in bringing a new satellite into service which could have easily been avoided by following standard ITU coordination procedures.
In the realm of satellite services, I’m happy to say that malign, intentional interference is a rare thing. ITU did note one recent instance of a country attempting to block a satellite TV broadcast it did not approve of. But this is essentially a political issue, not a technical one, and can only therefore be resolved with a political solution.
Even in cases of unintentional interference between two neighbouring countries with a strained political relationship, common sense normally wins through. Countries work together to resolve the issue quickly, not necessarily because of goodwill, but simply because it is in their mutual interest to find a solution.
Determining the technical principles and international guidelines that ensure interference-free operation of all radiocommunication services – the norms – is another of ITU’s very important tasks. This work is carried out in the six specialized Study Groups of ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector.
Because of this work, negotiations between different satellite operators is made a great deal easier, as they can each refer to us as an independent, impartial third party.
We are unique among UN-specialized agencies in having a mix of public and private sector members. That means that in addition to our 191 Member States we also have over 700 members comprising the world’s leading ICT operators, equipment manufacturers, software developers, service providers, R&D organizations and local, regional and international ICT bodies.
ITU Study Groups comprise technical experts drawn from this diverse membership, who work together to define the frameworks that will ensure optimum functioning of all services, both new and old. Many of these experts represent competing commercial interests – yet within the walls of ITU they put their rivalry to one side and work cooperatively to develop systems, best practice principles and guidelines that will serve the best interests of the industry as a whole.
I believe this is the great strength of ITU. For over 140 years, we have worked alongside the industry we serve, building global consensus, reconciling competing interests, and forging the new technical standards that have served as the platform for the development of what is now the world’s most dynamic business sector.
Through all this ITU, like UNIDIR, strives to foster peaceful cooperation among nations through the equitable sharing of global resources, for the betterment of humanity as a whole.