Navigating International Radio Regulations

By | October 18, 2004 | Feature

The satellite industry is affected dramatically by regulatory decisions about spectrum and the rights to orbital slots. Ambitious plans can fail to reach fruition without regulatory support.

Regulations for the international use of radio frequencies, including frequencies for communications satellites, are given in the International Telecom-munication Union’s (ITU) Radio Regulations. The regulations have been written by ITU World Radiocommuni-cation Conferences (WRCs) that are held every few years. The last was WRC-03, and it featured more than 50 agenda items. Two included regulations governing the aeronautical mobile satellite service (AMSS) in the 14 GHz-14.5 GHz band, needed by startup Connexion By Boeing. Another key item was passed to help earth stations aboard vessels (ESV) use frequencies allocated to the fixed-satellite service in both the C- and Ku-bands. These two services are examples of how critical favorable international regulatory decisions can be when a venture needs scarce RF spectrum that is shared among terrestrial, wireless and satellite services.

The ITU’s regulations require that services share spectrum allocated to the various frequency bands. Of particular interest to satellite operators is frequency coordination between satellite operators so that they can operate without causing or receiving interference. Such ttechnical characteristics of the satellite as power levels, emission types, service areas and the size of earth station antennas often need be adjusted during the coordination process. Completing frequency coordination for a new satellite network has become increasingly difficult due to the large number of existing and planned networks, and it typically takes several years.

For those uninitiated in this important process, the three steps of frequency coordination are:

1) Advance publication information (API)

2) Coordination request (CR)

3) Notification and registration

Once the coordination is completed, the frequencies can be registered in the Master International Frequency Register and, thereby, obtain international recognition.

Construction of a satellite will often start before the frequency coordination has been completed. To ensure that rights can be arranged for the satellite to operate at the intended frequencies and from the orbital location, bankers will usually require due diligence that the needed rights will be obtained through the frequency coordination process. If a new applicant would cause interference to a network with a filing priority, then, the ITU requires the new network to eliminate that interference. It could mean shutting down the offending transponder(s) and losing revenue. This dreaded result already has happened to some operators.

Excess Number Of Filings

Administrations have in the past filed for many more satellite networks than can be implemented, a persistent complaint about the ITU process. One reason for excessive filings is to warehouse orbital slots and spectrum for future use. Another reason for overfiling is to ensure that at least one application will survive the coordination process. A filing is now valid for seven years from the date of receipt of the API by the Radiocommunication Bureau. Filings submitted before Nov. 22, 1997, are valid for nine years from the date of publication of the API.

Now, the ITU’s requirement that applicants pay fees seems to have moderated the number of new filings. The Radiocommunication Bureau accepts all filings for satellite- communications networks as long as a filing meets certain minimal requirements of the ITU Radio Regulations. Furthermore, the bureau does not decide whether to accept or reject an application for a specific network, even if the network is in conflict with earlier filed networks. The ITU constitution recognizes the sovereign right of each country to regulate its telecommunications, including its right to submit as many satellite networks as it wants. It is through the frequency-coordination process that administrations negotiate the right to use certain frequencies at a given orbital location while taking into account the priority of other networks.

The frequencies of a filing must, in the terms of the Radio Regulations, be “brought into use” before the lifetime of the network expires; otherwise, the filing is cancelled. “Bringing into use” a frequency, referring to the center frequency of the transponder, usually is done when the new satellite is launched and moved into its requested location to begin carrying traffic. However, if the launch of the new satellite is behind schedule and a filing is about to expire, an administration may move an existing in-orbit satellite into the orbital location requested through that filing to preserve use of the slot. The practice of using an existing in-orbit satellite, even an old one in inclined orbit, can be defended as long as certain conditions are met.

The priority for a satellite network is given by the date the ITU received the request for coordination, provided that the frequencies of the filing receive a favorable review when examined by the Radiocommunication Bureau. There are two separate categories in which the bureau conducts an examination. The first is to help ensure that the frequencies meet all the technical conditions of the regulations. These conditions include not exceeding the maximum power flux-density limits on the surface of the Earth and obeying any other technical requirement given in the ITU regulations for the particular frequencies. The second category is to help ensure that the network has completed frequency coordination with all satellite networks that have priority.

It is, of course, not in the interest of satellite operators to cause harmful interference to each other. With goodwill, potential conflicts usually can be resolved. Such agreements may result in a compromise that means neither satellite can be exploited to its fullest. In the case of continuing coordination disagreement, an administration may submit its case to the Radio Regulations Board to rule on the dispute. For example, two administrations may have a dispute regarding priority to a slot if one administration does not agree with the way in which the other administration used an in-orbit satellite to bring into use frequencies before a filing was about to expire. Although the board has no enforcement power, administrations have accepted its decisions.

Jorn Christensen is president of Ontario, Canada-based J. Christensen Consultants Ltd., which specializes in international regulation. He can be emailed at

Live chat by BoldChat