30 October 2021 will mark the 115th anniversary of the first ITU Radio Regulations, an international treaty that governs the global use of the limited natural resources of outer space. One of the fundamental principles of these Regulations points to the need for equitable access to radio frequencies and satellite orbits.
In practice, this principle is implemented through the frequency allotment plans, according to which a certain amount of radio-frequency spectrum in the GSO is reserved for all countries. Such a reservation has no time limits and patiently waits for a state to become technically capable of establishing its national satellite telecommunications system.
Permanent national allotments were intended to counter-balance a different approach to the spectrum management which is often referred to as ‘first come, first served.’ This approach gives priority to those nations that started using spectrum earlier and laid their hands on its best parts. Those countries that reach satellite telecommunications later than others are content with the rest of the spectrum, however, in addition to what is allotted to them according to the plans. The question is whether these plans fulfil the task of ensuring equal access of all countries to the limited natural resources of outer space.
The answer can be suggested by statistics. To date, only about 10 of approximately 190 national allotments are utilized. In other cases, states use frequency assignments that are made on the first-come-first-served basis or combine such assignments with national allotments. What could be the reason for such an obvious lack of success?
National allotments are laid out with predefined technical characteristics. Given that the first plans were drawn up decades ago, such characteristics do not always keep up with the latest technical advances and technological developments.
For example, national allotments include limited bandwidth, which is generally sufficient for national needs, but much less than a modern spacecraft can carry and less diverse in terms of the frequency bands currently used for satellite telecommunications. An allotment comprises a service area for national coverage, while any geostationary satellite can serve a third of the Earth’s surface. Each allotment is tied to a nominal orbital position, which is not always optimally placed in relation to the national territory and may not take into account geographical features such as mountainous terrain.
This makes it technically impractical and economically unwise to rely on national allotments alone, while the principle of equitable access does not always work in practice. More so, all these shortcomings relate to national allotments on the GSO, while ‘seats’ in increasingly popular low Earth orbits cannot be booked in advance under any plans and best orbital shells will be taken by the firstcomers.
Should we not contribute to the development of a legal framework that actually guarantees all countries equitable access to the limited natural resources of outer space?