A Closer Look at the ITU’s Radio Regulations Board

By | February 1, 2011 | Broadcasting, Via Satellite

The Radio Regulations of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at last count, include nearly 2,200 pages covering more than 40 radio services, such as the FSS. The Radiocommunication Bureau (BR — an acronym based on the French language version) within the ITU employs the full-time officials who administer the Radio Regulations, for instance, by processing applications for satellite orbital slots and associated frequencies to be registered internationally. The body that interprets these rules and mediates conflicts between member countries does not operate full time, however, but instead is made up of part-time experts elected by the ITU members to serve on the Radio Regulations Board, the RRB.

The RRB is a relatively recent body, created in 1994 as a replacement for the earlier International Frequency Registration Board, itself dating back to an ITU Plenipotentiary Conference held in 1947 in Atlantic City. The story of these bodies and their responsibilities has been described by former RRB Member Wladyslaw Moron, who collected the background in a concise statement updated in November.

The 1994 changes resulted in a split between the Radio Regulations administrative duties, which were moved into the new BR, and the interpretation of the rules, a task given to the new RRB. The board is not a permanent secretariat, however, because its members stay in their home countries, and as Moron says, “They come to Geneva only for short meetings a few times a year.” There are 12 RRB members, elected from five regions every four years to create a geographic balance.

The RRB’s short meetings last at least a week and can require an intensive amount of work. The RRB has held 55 such meetings in its history, with the most recent ending in early December. For its first meeting in February 1995, the RRB had a relatively sedate agenda to consider only five brief documents. By contrast, the 55th meeting considered 14 documents, some very lengthy, covering numerous and often controversial issues. The agenda items ranged from conflicts between France and Iran over a satellite slot; cancellation of numerous frequency assignments of non-operational satellite networks for Tonga and other countries; harmful interference or Radio Regulations infringements by Italy to neighboring Slovenian broadcast stations; and an interminable series of complaints by Cuba over alleged U.S. interference.

The RRB mediates between member states in these disputes — Moron calls the board a “kind of watchdog to monitor compliance.” Its decisions only can be changed by a subsequent world radiocommunication conference, such as WRC-12 coming up in less than a year. The RRB typically is reluctant, however, to decide the conflicting claims of countries. In the author’s experience, the RRB rarely challenges factual assertions by a member state, even when the claims are obviously a stretch. The RRB will insist, over the course of several meetings, that the member states try to work out their difficulties before forcing a decision.

Another major duty of the RRB is to interpret the Radio Regulations and issue rules of procedure for how they should be applied. In this process, the RRB works with possible inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the regulations that arise due to the pressure at radio conferences to adopt complex rules in a short space of time. Mistakes arise, and the RRB has to deal with them.

A further challenging matter for the RRB was given to it by WRC-97, which adopted Resolution 80 on due diligence in applying ITU constitutional provisions. Among other matters, that resolution calls on the RRB and other ITU institutions to look into possible ways to realize principles of equitable access to satellite frequencies and orbital slots.

Both the BR and the RRB continue work on this topic, and it remains on the agenda of the next radio conference as item 8.1.3. It is not a item that will be resolved quickly, because pressure on the geostationary orbit continues to mount, as shown by the controversies the RRB faces at each meeting. In his concluding remarks, Moron notes that this problem is “difficult and delicate.” The RRB becomes a pressure point for interpreting the rules — a pressure that is only going to increase.

More background on the ITU radiocommunication sector can be found in the recent ITU History portal at http://www.itu.int/en/history/Pages/default.aspx.

Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Hogan Lovells Brussels office.

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