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Regulatory Review: World Radio Conference: The Sum Of Its Parts

By | January 1, 2002

      by Gerry Oberst

      Describing all the issues at a world radio conference organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is similar to the results found by the proverbial blind men examining an elephant. There are so many parts to such a conference that everyone comes away with a different description, depending on what issues they touch.

      Nevertheless, European policymakers sought to review all the important issues on the agenda for the next radio conference at a workshop jointly organized by the European Commission and the Conference of European Postal and Telecoms Administrations (CEPT) in late November of last year.

      This Conference Preparatory Workshop (CPG) looked at 33 agenda items scheduled for the WRC-03 to be held in late June and the first few days of July, 2003. And the CPG workshop did so in just a day and a half in Brussels on November 19-20, 2001. The satellite industry was out in force at this event to discuss how the various items would affect their sector, because access to spectrum is the lifeblood of satellite operators and service providers.

      To some members of the industry, the first session on the first day of the workshop was the important part of the elephant. That session’s agenda items dealt with radionavigation by satellite, of large interest to the aviation crowd.

      That same session also focused on one slice of spectrum, in the 13.75-14.00 GHz band, where satellite terminals must have a minimum size of 4.5 meters. To many VSAT operators, this size limit is not a technical sharing standard, but instead was chosen arbitrarily at the last radio conference to act as an economic burden on satellite antenna installations. The theory was that operators would minimize the number of antennas they installed due to the size requirements, thus protecting terrestrial radars operating in the same band. Now the satellite industry argues for a much smaller size restraint, with other technical standards chosen to protect those radar systems.

      The second session of the workshop touched on mobile services, including mobile satellite and space science services. From the satellite perspective, this discussion ranged from allocations in the Ku-band for aeronautical satellite applications, to the current need for mobile satellite applications below 3 GHz, to the pressing issue of what frequency ranges should be allocated for next generation mobile services, the so-called 3G or IMT-2000 services.

      This last topic raised controversy. One of the agenda items at the next radio conference focuses on certain expansion bands for 3G service. The United States will take some time to decide how to deal with the spectrum, or whether to allocate it to 3G at all. The debate in Europe is whether to preserve some of this spectrum in the 2.5/2.6 GHz range for satellite IMT-2000 service, or to throw that spectrum into the pot of terrestrial allocations from the beginning.

      The satellite industry had a few words to say about this. The Satellite Action Plan regulatory group (SAP REG), representing the industry in Europe, said it was premature to consider identifying this additional spectrum for terrestrial applications. The picture for terrestrial spectrum demand is far too unclear and service to many areas of Europe cannot be guaranteed without the satellite component, along with appropriate opportunities for expansion spectrum. Nevertheless, the terrestrial operators are casting greedy eyes at any and all spectrum for their expensive new IMT-2000 systems.

      Day two of the workshop, on the morning of November 20, turned attention to fixed satellite (FSS) and broadcasting satellite issues. There are several very specific agenda items scheduled for WRC-03 that affect FSS systems, but the “big ticket” issue is agenda item 1.25, which asks for consideration of appropriate spectrum resources for High Density Fixed Satellite Service (HDFSS).

      “High density” service refers to the number of terminals, and typically means wide deployment for mass-market applications, most likely for broadband and Internet type services. There is general agreement that HDFSS applications will depend on small and low cost antennas, which will not be coordinated on a site-by-site basis.

      There the agreement stops. Current European policy comes from CEPT decisions that rely on sharing between terrestrial and satellite frequency allocations, mitigation techniques to avoid interference, and sometimes even segregation of satellite services away from urban concentrations, where terrestrial infrastructure is presumed to be more competitive.

      But this approach flies in the face of market access theories that satellite and terrestrial applications should compete head on. It also makes assumptions that mitigation techniques actually work, which some current research is drawing into question. Rather than approaches based on shared frequencies, the satellite industry would prefer spectrum dedicated to satellite service.

      The industry representatives who examined this strange elephant of the WRC-03 agenda saw many different aspects. The constant refrain that they all touched on is that there will be a battle over spectrum access for satellite systems at the radio conference.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. His email address is

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