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Regulatory Review: Satellite Phraseology–The Language And The Lingo

By | March 1, 2002

      By Gerry Oberst

      The satellite sector seems to rely on a vast library of arcane terms and acronyms that complicate the entire area and freeze out newcomers. Little-known groups at the international level work to coordinate terms and harmonize words used in technical and regulatory discussion.

      But this task is a never-ending battle, because new terms are invented and acronyms in the sector change constantly, especially as regulatory organizations change their names and functions.

      The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) maintains a substantial series of recommended terms that cover radiocommunication vocabulary. This “V-series” of recommendations, with terms given in English, Spanish and French, is the responsibility of the ITU’s “Coordination committee for vocabulary,” or “CCV.” Many terms are defined in the ITU radio regulations themselves, but the V-series is intended to be a comprehensive listing of all the technical terms routinely used.

      One section of the ITU V-series recommendations is dedicated solely to space radiocommunication terms. Section H contains all the definitions you ever wanted to know about orbits, types of satellites and so on. Other terms used in satellite technical and regulatory discussion are sprinkled throughout the other sections of this recommendation series.

      Just as important as the technical vocabulary is the set of acronyms that the satellite field uses. Satellite professionals rely on the old standbys of the major ITU service categories–for example, Fixed Satellite Service (FSS), Mobile Satellite Service (MSS), Radiodetermination Satellite Service (RDSS) and Broadcast Satellite Service (BSS). Even in those categories, there is much overlap. At a conference in Brussels last November focusing on planning for the next ITU World Radio Conference, one speaker asked if the overlap between FSS and BSS might justify linking the two terms. The consensus view was that this suggestion would open a can of worms better left closed.

      Beyond those main technical acronyms, the industry changes constantly. Thus, MSS led to Global Mobile Personal Communication Services (GMPCS), which led to Satellite Personal Communication Systems (S-PCS), which led to–well, it led to bankruptcy for the major S-PCS players Iridium and ICO. In the meantime, regulators developed a new term for the satellite component of Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service, i.e., “S-UMTS.”

      A new term is even waiting to be invented. Discussion at the ITU is starting to focus on a next generation of mobile telecoms services, coming up after “third generation” or “3G” systems. The new debate refers to terrestrial wireless interactive multimedia, abbreviated as “TWIM.” Proponents of this new term want to create a service definition that incorporates convergence between fixed, broadcast and mobile services. It is only a short step to invent the satellite component of this as-yet-undefined service, and call it “SWIM.”

      Many of these changing acronyms merely add a bell and a whistle in order to invent a new word. But some changes in acronyms are more important, as they point to new regulators or new legal structures.

      The most important recent acronym shift in Europe occurred last year when the European Conference of Post and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) reshuffled its committees and agencies in charge of developing spectrum standards and allocations. The old European Committee of Telecommunications Regulatory Agencies (ECTRA) and the European Radiocommunication Committee (ERC) merged into a single Electronic Communications Committee (ECC).

      The ECC is now the focal point for telecoms spectrum and related technical matters in the 44-nation CEPT. This new acronym inevitably will cause confusion, as it is similar to acronyms commonly used for the European Commission or European Community, but its name does not identify itself as European.

      At the same time that the ECC was created, in a modest restructuring of subagencies, the group dedicated to satellite issues got a new acronym. Some years ago, a project team for satellite issues was created several layers down in the CEPT hierarchy. That group was labeled “Special Investigative Group, Milestone Review–Satellite,” which due to a typographical error was shortened to the delightful “Mr. Sat.” That group in turn became the Joint Project Team–Satellite, or “JPT SAT.”

      Alas, in the latest restructuring, the old JPT SAT now bears the prosaic label “PT 5,” for project team 5. This group focuses on satellite-specific issues brought to its attention by industry or funneled down through the higher-level ECC working groups. Those groups have not changed their names, and remain the working groups for Radio Regulation (WG RR), Frequency Management (WG FM) and Spectrum Engineering (WG SE).

      There also is an ECC Conference Preparatory Group (CPG), which prepares for ITU World Radio Conferences (WRCs, except for those who still call them WARCs for the World Administrative Radio Conferences they used to be).

      Love them or hate them, the acronyms and vocabulary we use in the satellite field are in constant flux. Amaze your friends and confound your enemies with our wonderfully arcane library of strange terms.

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

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