Radiofrequency spectrum, a region of electromagnetic spectrum, is an invisible natural resource that surrounds us. It enables wireless telecommunications (such as mobile phones) and connectivity to essential services for modern day living and commerce. Spectrum is increasingly vital for connecting machines, devices, sensors, autonomous vehicles, among many other invaluable uses like navigation, weather forecasting, resource monitoring, and radar systems for safe air travel and national defense.
Although spectrum surrounds us, it is not freely available for our use. Due to the physical properties of radio waves, transmission of radio signals must be managed to avoid causing interference to other users which could hinder or prevent their reception of desired signals. Thus, use of radio spectrum is carefully controlled by governments in every country through laws, regulation, and licensing.
Because radio waves don’t stop at national borders, and many radio-dependent services (such as ships and aircraft) operate internationally, international harmonization of spectrum management is required. And, in our increasingly globalized world, standardization and regulatory harmonization are also necessary to enable rapid implementation of evolving radio technologies (such as Wi-Fi and 4G/5G). For space services, including satellites, global spectrum management is essential to provide confidence in the protection of necessary radio operations beyond the reach of national jurisdictions.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the United Nations with 193 Member States and some 900 Sector Members (including industry), plays a central role in facilitating the global harmonization of spectrum management, including for space services.
The ITU’s Constitution establishes authority to allocate radiofrequency bands to services and to register the spectrum assignments of Member States, including associated orbital positions, to avoid harmful interference between the radio stations of different countries. Moreover, in using radio frequencies and any associated orbits, Member States are to bear in mind that they are limited natural resources that must be used rationally, efficiently, and economically, and in conformity with the Radio Regulations, so that other countries may have equitable access to them. To this end, they are to endeavor to apply the latest technical advances as soon as possible.
The ITU’s Radio Regulations, established in 1906, are a four-volume treaty document containing detailed provisions to implement these principles. They are adopted by Member States at World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRCs) convened by the ITU about every four years. The next WRC will be in 2023. WRC Final Acts are treaty instruments containing amendments to the Radio Regulations, including provisions to implement new space technologies and services. Thus, the ITU develops new international space law at a regular cadence that enables space innovation.
The space industry, together with national regulators, work through the ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) to develop standards, technical studies, and sharing techniques that form the basis of decisions taken by WRCs. Space operators and their administrations apply the Radio Regulations to coordinate their services and to register their assignments to avoid harmful interference and to obtain international recognition of their operations.