Among numerous space activities, satellite communications remain the most widespread, essential, and advanced. Satellites have become an integral part of our daily lives, providing instant delivery of huge amounts of data, real-time voice and video, radio and television broadcasting, and broadband access worldwide. By transmitting signals at any distance, satellites connect places everywhere on Earth, allowing us to stay in touch for work and with our loved ones in any circumstances.
To perform a communication function, satellites need to be placed in orbit and use the radio-frequency spectrum, which are limited natural resources. Such resources are managed by the Radiocommunication Sector of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-R), which ensures their rational, equitable, efficient and economical use in an interference-free environment.
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?
The evolution of technology is increasingly blurring the once clear distinction between the aviation and space sector. Technologies that combine elements of the two fields such as satellite-guided unmanned aerial vehicles, sub-orbital flights and space-based Global Flight Tracking are on their way towards full global implementation. All these systems make use of radio spectrum for telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) and voice/data transmission, relying upon a combination of space and terrestrial communication services subject to the ITU Radio Regulations. The management of the radio spectrum used by these technologies represents a challenge for the ITU Radiocommunication Sector on a double level. At first, it will need to adapt its own regulatory framework by introducing new spectrum use parameters and procedures or by amending the existing ones. As recognized by ITU Resolution 772 with reference to stations on board of sub-orbital vehicles, indeed, the current ones are likely inadequate for international use of relevant frequency assignments. Secondly, the safety-of-life aspects of the above-mentioned technologies as well as their required integration in global Air Traffic Management will require a tighter coordination with ICAO, which is the UN Specialized Agency in charge of the safety of international civil aviation. Its mandate includes also the safety aspects related to radio communication and navigation services, which are regulated in Annex 10 to the Chicago Convention. Such coordination is currently based upon the cross-participation of the technical experts of the two agencies in the respective technical preparatory works. In this sense, it has to be recalled the key role of the ICAO Frequency Spectrum Management Panel (FSMP) and of the ITU-R Study Groups 4 and 5. An increased participation of the interested private and public stakeholders, however, will be crucial to ensure that the final regulatory output reflects the actual needs of the industry and of the public. In view of the increasing workload and complexity of the task, it could be even envisaged the creation of a joint ITU-ICAO working group on the basis of the existing Joint IMO/ITU Experts Group on Maritime Radiocommunication Matters. A mixed and in principle balanced representation of experts from the two agencies, from the different communities of national regulators as well as from the private industry would ensure that all interests and expertise are given proper relevance, while the UNOOSA could participate with observer status in representation of the space community.
The rise of large LEO constellations has led to several challenges, not only related to the increasing congestion of specific orbits. Indeed, this trend also has a profound impact on the management and regulation of the use of radio frequency spectrum, a scarce natural resource with finite capacity, whose risk of shortage notably grows. The critical role played by the satellite industry in the telecommunication sector and the rising need to better integrate space and terrestrial networks are demonstrated by the recent inclusion of non-terrestrial networks in standardisation documents, such as, for instance, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Release 17, “5G for space: the NR NTN standard” published in March 2022, and further complemented with the ITU Working Party 4B´s developing standards for the satellite component of International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) 2022. Among other challenges, the problem of orbit and spectrum reservation without actual use, and the phenomena of spectrum warehousing and overfilling with so-called paper satellites are incrementally being considered within ITU. Resolution 49 to the Radio Regulations (RR) on administrative due diligence applies to satellite networks in the FSS, MSS, and BSS that are subject to ITU coordination procedure, and requires specific information (in the application of RR No. 11.48) to be submitted within 30 days after the end of the regulatory deadline (RR No. 11.44), and otherwise resulting in the suppression of the submission. Focusing on the rising issue of spectrum speculation in the context of large constellations, the practice of the ITU-R Bureau (BR) on non-GSO satellite systems is reflected in the Rules of Procedure for RR No. 11.44C. The latter state that a frequency assignment to space stations in any non-GSO system has been brought into use (BIU) when one satellite with the capability of transmitting or receiving that frequency assignment is deployed and “maintained on one of the orbital plane(s) for a continuous period of 90 days”. During WRC-19, participants have agreed on a new regulatory procedure, under which non-GSO systems shall deploy 10% of their constellations within two years after the end of the regulatory period for bringing into use, 50% within five years, and complete the deployment within seven years (Resolution 35). Within the context of the WRC-23 agenda item 7, the ITU-R Working Party 4A will have to continue exploring new mechanisms for BIU frequency assignments to non-GSO constellations. The objective should be to prevent spectrum warehousing, while also considering operational requirements for the deployment of non-GSO systems and the functioning of the coordination procedure.
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.