U.S. Faces WRC Challenges

By | June 23, 2003 | Feature

The International Telecommunication Union’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) wrapped up its second week in Geneva tackling an ambitious agenda of spectrum-related initiatives. Among the list of 48 agenda items is an effort to earmark spectrum for the increasingly popular aeronautical mobile satellite services (AMSS) that will enable airline passengers to access broadband services in-flight, such as the Connexion by Boeing service being tested now. The WRC delegates have agreed to an allocation on a “secondary” basis in the 14 GHz to 14.5 GHz band.

Another issue concerns sharing of spectrum between fixed satellite services (FSS) and military radars. Some WRC delegates want to allow FSS to deploy dishes smaller than the current 4.5-meter limit in the 13.75 GHz to 14 GHz band, but there is concern that this will cause interference with existing radar systems. Some progress has been made there, with the U.S. agreeing to smaller dishes in exchange for power limits to protect the radar systems.

Another agenda item is how radionavigation satellite services (RNSS) – i.e., U.S. GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s planned Galileo system – will share access to spectrum with other services, such as aeronautical radio navigation.

The WRC also is tackling the minimum size of the antenna that could be used by broadcast satellite services (BSS). Europe and Asia want the minimum size of BSS antennas set at 60 centimeters, whereas the United States and the rest of the Americas want to keep the minimum antenna size at 45 centimeters. This issue could affect U.S. satellite TV providers DirecTV and EchoStar Communications [Nasdaq: DISH].

Janice Obuchowski, the U.S. ambassador to the WRC, has her work cut out for her. Appointed by President Bush in January, Ambassador Obuchowski hit the ground running. She’s been working in the telecom policy arena for 20 years, including a stint as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from 1989 to 1992. She has gotten up to speed quickly on the complexities of the WRC process and the issues confronting the U.S. delegation. She spoke recently with SATELLITE NEWS Managing Editor Fred Donovan in an exclusive interview.

SATELLITE NEWS: Could you tell us what the overall U.S. goals are at this World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC)?

Obuchowski: This is a WRC that is quite a bit different from almost any predecessor in that the agenda is not driven by any one system. That is reflective of the fact that spectrum allocation questions involve a range of commercial, security, manned space services and aviation. There are a lot of different uses of the radio spectrum that are new. So you have a much broader range of agenda items. To a certain extent, it is a function of the fact that the tech sector is less ebullient. So you don’t have the situation that you had in 2000 where you had one big idea – in that case 3G [third-generation wireless] dominated the conference. In the years before that it was big systems such as Teledesic and Iridium. Our objective at this conference is to try to avoid linkage [of major issues], to work the process, to get items wrapped up, rather than do what the Europeans tend to want, which is a big, comprehensive deal at the end.

In terms of what this conference is about, from a commercial perspective it’s about several new services or enhancements to existing services. The hottest single technology on the agenda is Wi-Fi in the 5 GHz band. Another issue that is of major commercial interest is the aeronautical mobile satellite service proposed by Boeing [in the 14-14.5 GHz band]. A service that always is on the agenda is broadcast satellite service (BSS). This is essentially a fight within Region 1 – the Europeans and Arabs have different approaches to accommodating BSS … It impacts us because we don’t want to be dragged into this fight. So we are playing defense. We have around 20 million direct broadcast satellite customers in the United States [who we want to protect]. So we are playing defense on that item.

SN: One of the BSS controversies is the minimum size of dishes. The Americas want to keep the minimum dish size at 45 centimeters, whereas the Europeans and Asians want to go up to 60 centimeters. Why are other regions interested in raising the minimum size? If the minimum is raised, how would that impact DBS operators and customers in the United States?

Obuchowski: On the former question, the Europeans don’t want to have to protect the 45 centimeter dishes. It is harder to protect a 45 centimeter dish against interference than it is to protect a 60 centimeter dish …The worst case scenario would be that the minimum size of the dish would be increased prospectively. There is nothing that can be done to the dishes that are already installed. But we don’t envision that happening. It’s simply a matter of working hard to ensure that we don’t buy into an approach that wouldn’t protect our systems satisfactorily.

SN: Is the BSS dispute between the Europeans and Arabs a technical issue or a content issue?

Obuchowski: The WRC is a technical conference but you have a lot of political issues masquerading as technical issues. There seem to be a couple of political issues. One issue revolves around the Europeans and Arabs trying to agree on a BSS plan in Region 1. We don’t like plans in the U.S. We’ve always tried to go with a first-come, first-served approach. When a system is ready to go, you coordinate with incumbents so there’s no interference. But you launch without a plan … But there’s always been a point of view from countries that are less developed that they want a plan that accommodates their future requirements. They don’t want to have to design around the incumbents in a way that would hamstring them economically or technically. So that’s been one part of the debate between the Europeans and the Arabs because the Arabs are not as far along as the Europeans in their development of this market. They want that opportunity. That’s a political imperative. The second issue has to do with content – the right of a government to control what is broadcast into its territory. Both sides, for economic and political reasons, feel strongly on this item and that tends to harden positions.

SN: Let’s turn to the radionavigation satellite services (RNSS) – GPS, GLONASS and Galileo. What is the major issue here? Is it the potential interference risk between these systems and terrestrial-based aeronautical radio navigation services? Or is this a U.S. GPS versus a European Galileo dispute?

Obuchowski: The good news is that the dispute is not GPS versus Galileo. Those technical issues were ironed out at previous WRCs. To the extent both technical and economic issues remain, they are beyond the scope of this conference. The precise agenda item is how would the new satellite navigation services protect the existing radio navigation services. There is a lot of aeronautical radar in this band. That’s the serious technical question on the table. How can the upgrade of GPS from our side and the deployment of Galileo from the European side protect the existing services in the shared band.

Both the U.S. and the Europeans are committed to protecting the incumbent services, but we have different approaches. There is an interference threshold that the incumbents can tolerate. We agree on the interference levels [i.e., cumulative power levels] beyond which no one would want to go in order to protect safety of life services. There is a cumulative effect. It’s like a pot of interference that all the systems can create. When you are getting ready to upgrade or launch, you have to prove that you are not going to exceed this interference threshold. Everyone at this conference agrees that we don’t want any one GPS-like service to consume the entire threshold, thereby precluding other systems from being launched. The question is, how does one share [to stay within the] interference threshold. We would say that we need to coordinate with ‘real’ systems on sharing that pot of permissible interference. By real systems, we don’t simply mean systems that have already been launched, such as GPS and GLONASS. It would also be Galileo and any other systems that have attained specified benchmarks that are moving down the path to launch. We don’t want to be in a room negotiating with systems that seem to be glimmers in an administration’s eye. The CEPT [European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations] approach is much more of a regulatory approach, which gives a much broader range of administrations the ability to be in that room negotiating these interference thresholds.

SN: The WRC is looking at an allocation for aeronautical mobile satellite service. How large is the allocation? Is this allocation needed for the services being deployed this year by Boeing and other companies?

Obuchowski: The service does depend on obtaining this allocation. The band in which the [AMSS] is proposed [14-14.5GHz] already has an incumbent with primary status. MSS is secondary in this band, but aeronautical has always been excepted from this. We are trying to get rid of the exception language so that aeronautical MSS could operate in this band. At this point, Boeing is operating with experimental licenses but in terms of a broad-based deployment and the kind of permanency you would want for such a major investment, there is a need to remove the limitation on the MSS aeronautical services. The U.S. and just about everyone else is pushing for the removal of this limit. The Europeans agree; Asia-Pacific agrees; Latin America agrees.

This conference is not about the allocation but the regulatory treatment of this secondary service. Why in the world are we debating about regulatory treatment when this is a service that is secondary? And it’s also a licensed service, so any country could put any limits they want into the band. We don’t see that there are any big regulatory issues at this conference. But some countries want to address the regulatory issues up front at the conference. So that is what is happening under this item. There is concern about interference with primary users.

SN: What would the U.S. government consider a positive outcome at this WRC?

Obuchowski: A positive outcome would be action on each of our major agenda items that I’ve discussed – the ability of the Connexion by Boeing service to go forward; an allocation for the Wi-Fi technology (we want a more generous allocation for outdoor use of Wi-Fi than the Europeans); and a way forward for an upgrade to GPS without any unnecessary regulatory impediments. Then we have other issues, such as protecting Navy radars in the 13.75 GHz to 14 GHz band where much of the world wants to permit the use of smaller-aperture FSS terminals. We want no change to the minimum size for FSS terminals. The FSS industry in other parts of the world wants smaller dishes to enable a more widespread deployment because smaller terminals are less expensive than larger dishes. But those are dishes that produce more interference – firstly, because they tend to be more numerous, and secondly because if you have a small dish, you have to have a more high-powered satellite to transmit to the smaller dish. Higher power creates more interference with existing radars.

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