Paper Satellites: A Puzzle for the Industry

By | January 1, 2010 | Cover Story, Telecom

Given their scarcity and value, orbital locations and the radiofrequency spectrum always have been a matter of contention among satellite market players. In the late 1990s, when, over the course of relatively few years, plans for new satellite systems grew exponentially in numbers as well as in business and technical audacity, the fight to secure these resources intensified. The picture emerging at the time was a clear one: a geostationary orbital arc clogged by the excessive filing of projects that took too long to develop and all too often ended up not seeing the light of day. The phrase coined to describe this situation was the rather picturesque “paper satellites” (more properly, paper satellite filings), i.e., satellites that existed only on paper but whose burden on the industry was very real.

We also asked the satellite community how we could improve the system. As a result, we have decided to embark on a more proactive policy.

—Henri, ITU

The public debate around this issue, however, often is marred by misconceptions and unrealistic expectations. For example, experts lament the fact that the very phrase paper satellites habitually is misunderstood even within industry circles. “Strictly speaking, the notified date of bringing into use any assignments to a space station of a satellite network shall not be later than seven years following the start of the registration procedures, which means that your satellite project may be qualified as paper satellite during that period” says the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)’s Yvon Henri, chief of the Space Services Department (SSD) Radiocommunication Bureau. “In reality, within the ITU, the term paper satellites is generally used to describe the somewhat abnormal behavior on the part of administrations of over filing of satellite projects that took place in the late 1990s. During those years, an unusually high number of satellite network coordination requests, most probably including speculative ones, created a processing backlog in the system. This backlog has been definitely cleared and this issue is no more,” he says.

Public misconceptions, however, are not limited to the misuse of a specific terminology. While the issue of paper satellite filings normally is associated with the exploitation of orbital resources, in reality it goes well beyond this aspect to involve the utilization of the radiofrequency spectrum as well. “The issue of paper satellites is, of course, a combination of slots and frequency bands that need to be maximized,” says John Lothian, vice president of SES’ Spectrum Policy and Development. His comments are echoed by those of other senior industry executives, including Kalpak Gude, Intelsat’s vice president and deputy general counsel. “Satellite orbital slots and spectrum are very related issues,” he says. 

Improving the Process

The management of spectrum and orbital resources is done through a combination of international and national coordination. The international management of the use of these resources is entrusted to the ITU, i.e., the 191 member states of the organization, and codified in the Radio Regulations, which include the specific regulations governing the registration of satellite networks. Commercial operators then file their plans with the ITU through their national authorities. Crucially, frequency coordination to achieve an interference free environment for satellite operation, i.e., the heart of the issue, also is done within this ITU framework. But how is the system faring? While it is true that problems and inefficiencies emerged in the past, the consensus seems to be that the situation is getting better and that the management of resources is improving. “In the last year, the ITU has taken up the task of policing national administrations, making sure that they are fully following the rules,” says Jean-Paul Brillaud, deputy CEO of Eutelsat. “Hopefully, this will achieve better application of the rules and therefore better utilization of resources.”

The ITU-BR has been particularly active in this area over the last 12 months. In May, a workshop on the efficient use of spectrum and orbital resources was held in Geneva. Crucially, ITU-BR sought to include the satellite industry in the workshop asking for their input on how to improve the system it administers for recording frequency assignments. “The feedback we received on existing procedures for registration of satellite frequency assignments was a positive one,” says Henri. “However, we also asked the satellite community how we could improve the system. As a result, we have decided to embark on a more proactive policy.” The ITU-BR now is putting increasing pressure on administrations in relation to so-called paper recorded assignments, i.e., satellite filings expected to be followed up by the deployment of a satellite system. “We send a formal letter to the interested administration and also copy the operator asking them to clarify the issue,” says Henri.

This new course seems to be bringing results as many industry players agree with the view that, all in all, the system is being operated in an efficient way. Technical and management improvements are also contributing to this more effective utilization of resources. “Today, orbit/spectrum resources are being used in a very efficient way. It is important to remember that when it comes to satellite orbital slots and spectrum, operators have done an increasingly good job to drive efficiency,” says Gude. “Orbital separation between two co-frequency, co-coverage satellites used to be over 3 degrees not that many years ago. We are now routinely operating at less than 2 degrees separation in many places around the world,” he says.

But all is not rosy in the geostationary orbital arc. Industry leaders remain concerned with the number of ITU filings that are falsely indicated as brought into use and then never removed from the ITU Master International Frequency Register. “Right now independent information on the real use of the [geostationary] orbit shows some divergence from the corresponding information submitted by administrations to ITU. This means that fictitious assignments still exist in the Master Register. These are satellites that are recorded and said to be brought into regular operation, but they are not,” says Henri.

Clearly, this does not help the industry as a whole, and greater transparency is likely to be the only solution to this problem. “This harms everyone,” Gude says. “Governments will not often challenge each other’s claims, but if verifiable information is required regarding bringing into use, governments will be less likely to make false claims,” he says.

The natural institution in which to address these issues is of course the ITU. “Some years ago Luxembourg initiated a change at the ITU which became Resolution 86,” says SES’ Lothian. “As a result, each World Radio Conference (WRC) has an agenda item to consider improvements in the advance publication, coordination, notification and recording procedures. This is a step-by-step process. We have seen the introduction of cost recovery at the ITU, which acts as a form of financial due diligence. An administrative due diligence under Resolution 49 requires administrations to send information regarding the satellite contract to the ITU.”

Checking out the fact that filed systems are actually brought into use, however, is only part of the problem. An emerging problem is the fact that often the systems deployed are inconsistent with those filed. Considering the long development times of a satellite project, perhaps this comes as no surprise. The ITU also is tackling this aspect of the paper satellite issue. “Our effort is to ensure that the characteristics of frequency assignments recorded and those really brought into use are consistent, in other words more realistic than in the past” says Henri. “This is a long term effort but in the best interest of all administrations and satellite operators, as the future development of satellite communications is closely bound up with the international regulatory procedures. In this regard, WRC-12 (to be held in Geneva 2012) will be a unique opportunity for improving of the international regulatory framework for registering satellite networks.”

It is worth mentioning the fact that small satellite operators are widely believed to be more vulnerable to problems arising from frequency coordination. Larger operators, in fact, often have resources at their disposal in the form of orbital spare satellites to protect their rights. Clearly, this is not always the case for small satellite operators. However, given the relatively limited number of systems deployed in medium-Earth orbit and low-Earth orbit, the problem is not yet a pressing one. 

Frequency Saturation

While problems arising from frequency coordination are being dealt with by the ITU BR to the general satisfaction of the industry, one of the most pressing issues for the future of satellite remains frequency saturation and the need to tap into new resources. The issue of orbital slots maximization is really one of frequency resources, in that the crucial issue remains how to optimize frequency reuse within reduced orbital spacing between satellites. In that regard, if a frequency band proves to be popular it will eventually reach saturation point — coordination among operators cannot multiply finite physical resources. “Satcoms started using C-band and then moved on to Ku-band. However, Ku-band slots are mostly already allocated and are, as a consequence, increasingly rare,” says Brillaud. “You can improve the efficiency of slots by frequency and geographical reuse, but these measures are limited. The reality is that we are approaching the point where Ku-band will be saturated, especially over the Americas and Africa.”

Eutelsat’s experience seems to be widely shared among other market players. “New orbital locations and spectrum are becoming much harder to find in the more heavily used portions of the spectrum, such as C- and Ku-band,” says Gude. “There are more satellites operating today, from more orbital locations, providing more critical communications services than ever before. This speaks to the success of the industry and the value of our services.”

Are satellites the victims of their own success? While this seems to be the case, it is certainly no reason to be complacent. In fact, the question remains as to how growth can be achieved within an industry that is already close to exhausting its resources. The only possible answer is to move into the next available frequency range, i.e., Ka-band. Industry players such as Eutelsat have already started tapping into this resource. “We have taken the decision to launch capacity in this band,” says Brillaud. “We already have some capacity in Ka-band and in 2010 will launch a dedicated Ka-band satellite — Ka-Sat. It will be deployed at 13 degrees East, an orbital location already fully exploited by us in Ku-band.” The satellite industry first started using the Ku-band in the 1980s and 30 years later this band is on the verge of being saturated in some regions. Now, the industry is on the verge of entering the Ka-band and according to industry leaders such as Eutelsat’s Brillaud, the satellite sector should have 30 to 50 years of growth ahead. 

Guarding the Terrestrial Front

While the consensus within the industry seems to be that the handling of orbital slots and frequency resources is moving in the right direction thanks to the actions of the ITU and those administrations that recognize the importance of a healthy satellite industry, other fronts are opening up for the satellite sector. “We must remember that the space segment is only part of the story. We also need to have a ground segment,” says Lothian.

For many years, a delicate coexistence between the FSS and the terrestrial fixed point-to-point radio links sharing adjacent radiofrequency resources has been in place. More recently, however, the attempt on the part of terrestrial mobile operators to enter traditional satellite bands have changed this balance. Some administrations are looking at the possibility of refarming that spectrum for mobile broadband services, resulting in a major threat to satellite’s existence. “We saw this at WRC-07, with an attempt to identify the whole C-band for IMT, and we continue to face further threats on a national, regional or global basis,” says Lothian.

This is rightly identified as a crucial issue for the future of the satellite industry. “Frankly even more critical than the availability of orbit/spectrum resources is the increasing use of satellite spectrum by other services,” says Gude. “Governments are making decisions to either reallocate satellite spectrum for terrestrial uses or to increase sharing between satellites and terrestrial, thus making satellite services less efficient and more costly. For example, if you solved the orbital slot issue for C-band but at the same time had entire regions move to re-allocate C-band to terrestrial services, you would not have accomplished anything,” he says.

It is worth noting that unilateral actions of individual administrations can be extremely damaging for the industry as they tend to fragment satellite’s ubiquitous coverage, which is one of its main strengths. “The priority for the satellite sector now is to act together, including through industry organizations and bodies like [the Satellite Action Plan Regulatory Group] and [the European Satellite Operators Association] in Europe, [the Satellite Industry Association] in the United States, the GVF and others, in order to focus on our common interests,” Gude says.

The fight over radiofrequency resources promises to be a long and hard one. But it is a battle that the satellite industry quite simply cannot afford to lose.                                                                                           

Giovanni Verlini is a communication executive and freelance journalist based in Europe. Email: giovanniverlini@hotmail.

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