Regulatory Review: More On Paper Satellites–Still No End In Sight
By Gerry Oberst
This column has focused frequently on the backlog in registering satellites in the International Telecommunication Union master registry of orbital positions. Last April, we wrote about “Paper Satellites–No End in Sight,” and described efforts of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau (the “BR”) to urge reforms at the World Radio Conference held in Istanbul (the “WRC-2000”).
Well, the end is still not in sight. The discussions held at the last two meetings of the ITU Radio Regulation Board (RRB) show the delays getting worse, and BR officials seem close to panic about how to deal with this situation. While there is a Working Group on ITU Reform, not many concrete steps have been identified to help.
At the 20th RRB meeting held in September in Geneva, the BR Director said the backlogged satellite coordination system is on the “verge of collapse” and is worse than ever. It was noted “from 180 degreesW to 180 degreesE, there were currently up to a dozen filings seeking access to virtually every orbit position.”
The real problem with regard to satellite network filings is over-filing: that is, administrations are filing for more orbital positions than they could ever conceivably use. Without over-filing, there would be no backlog. But with the perfectly legal and commercially understandable approach of over-filing, aimed at securing increasingly scarce resources of spectrum and orbits, exorbitant numbers of networks are filed, while only a fraction are actually launched.
The BR emphasized this side of the problem in a report to the 21st meeting of the RRB, held in Geneva in November of last year. A reasonable estimate of the number of satellites to be launched is about 75 per year, of which 25-30 are commercial launches. But the BR said in mid-2000 it was receiving about 42 requests per month for coordinating satellites. Of those 42 coordination requests per month, most are not for real.
Other statistics showed 448 satellites remaining on the ITU database last year with an in-service date of roughly 2004. Under the best of assumptions, this data reveals that close to 400 entries in the database for 2004 are merely “paper satellites” that clog up the processing and leave room for gaming the system.
Some relief from the overload can be found in the dismal statistics. Our April 2000 column referred to the delay of 142 weeks to get a satellite network safely registered in the international registry as a “scandal.” More recent statistics show this scandal had shrunk to 96 weeks as of September 2000. At the same time, however, the time required to coordinate satellite networks had grown–what was a 100 week delay at the time of our last column grew near the end of 2000 to 119 weeks according to a report from the BR director.
The BR director said the industry is becoming increasingly concerned that the ITU appears to be unable to solve the problem. If the ITU fails to do so, the industry will eventually look for an alternative forum for processing filings. Already U.S. and European regulatory structures do not insist on ITU coordination being completed before satellites are placed into service.
The BR stressed that a further emphasis on electronic filings will help somewhat, but cannot cure the basic problem of over-filings. Some RRB members said perhaps it would be necessary to look to the financial aspects of the question, for example the possibility of auctioning spectrum. We note, however, that the U.S. Orbit Act instructs the FCC to oppose any ITU move towards auctioning international satellite spectrum and orbital positions.
Long-term solutions may require fundamental change in the radio regulations and the policies behind them. The challenge is upon the industry, the ITU, and most importantly, the ITU members, to come up with these changes.
The Working Group on ITU Reform represents one part of the ITU trying to find the right changes. This group held its third meeting in November, at which time it identified the backlog in satellite network filings to be “the most urgent issue to be addressed with respect to the ITU Radiocommunication Sector.”
Recognizing that no easy solutions have been found, the Reform Group agreed to continue the efforts of an ad hoc group to look into these issues and present a report to the next meeting of WGR. The ad hoc group that deals with these matters meets in early February 2001. The full meeting of the Reform Group is scheduled for April 2001 in Salvador, Brazil. We can only hope that some new ideas will be found by then.
Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.