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Regulatory Experts Preview Key Issues for WRC-23 

By Rachel Jewett | November 17, 2023
ITU's WRC-19 conference. Photo: ITU

ITU’s WRC-19 conference. Photo: ITU

On Monday, Nov. 20, the international spectrum gathering of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference kicks off in Dubai. 

Over 3,000 delegates from Member States of the ITU will gather at WRC-23 to review and revise the ITU Radio Regulations, the international treaty that governs the use of precious radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. Ahead of the gathering, Via Satellite reached out to regulatory experts to hear about the most important issues for WRC-23. 

Direct-to-Device Spectrum 

The agenda for WRC is finalized two years before the conference, and the general scope of the agenda is established at the previous WRC or even six years in advance. None of the WRC-19 agenda items foresaw the changes that have taken place in telecommunications in the past four years, said Jennifer A. Manner, senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs for EchoStar, pointing to the advances in direct-to-device technology. 

“The inclusion of non-terrestrial networks [NTN] in 3GPP 5G standards and the development of technology that supports the development of direct-to-device [D2D] services can be seen as a gamechanger on spectrum use,” Manner said.  

She pointed to submitted proposals requesting the adoption of a WRC agenda item to consider adding allocations to mobile service bands identified for international mobile telecommunications (IMT) for mobile satellite service (MSS) in order to enable D2D services without the threat of harmful interference.  

“We will see these issues raised at the 2023 Radiocommunications Assembly and WRC 23, with studies kicked off at this conference and many of these issues being considered at WRC 27,” Manner said. “WRC 23 will start to build the basis [and] will likely lead to some dramatic changes at WRC 27 and beyond in how the world uses the orbital and spectrum resource going forward.” 

Ivan Suarez, Space and Spectrum Policy director for Access Partnership, also pointed to implications for direct-to-device and the future agenda item regarding studies for additional bandwidth on mobile satellite services in technically appropriate frequency bands. 

“Currently, existing and compliant D2D emergency-type messaging solutions are serviced by MSS operators, albeit with many technical and bandwidth constraints. WRC-23 now has the critical role of deciding whether the 2023-2027 study cycle should prioritize an agenda item that allows MSS operators to further connect smartphone users when they are out of terrestrial coverage,” Suarez said. 

Suarez said there’s a misconception that proposing studies for other services in mobile bands would prevent mobile network operators (MNOs) from providing regular services nationally. But D2D is only needed in areas where MNOs are limited either by the business case or physical limitations to expand their networks. 

“A decision on these matters would allow the terrestrial-satellite integration to succeed by identifying more MSS spectrum, aiding MNOs and helping to connect more people in more places,” he said. 

EPFD Limits

One issue that is hotly contested is the possibility of adopting an agenda item to update the rules around satellite power limits — what is known as equivalent power flux-density (EPFD). 

Technically, this is defined as a calculation of how powerful a radio signal should be as it reaches an area on the surface of the Earth based on the distance from a transmitter. It controls the amount of power and other mitigation techniques NGSO systems must implement in order to not cause interference into Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO) networks. These limits facilitate spectrum sharing by GSO and NGSO operators. 

NGSO operators Amazon and SpaceX are urging WRC to adopt a future agenda item to study and potentially update the EPFD rules. Amazon is part of a recently formed group called the Alliance for Satellite Broadband advocating on this issue. 

The alliance argues the current rules reduce the availability of NGSO satellite systems and increase the cost of broadband service provided by NGSO satellites. The group said that technical studies show that the current limits go beyond what is necessary to protect GSO systems with no benefit to GSO operations. 

But some GEO operators are firmly opposed. John Janka, chief officer of Global Government Affairs & Regulatory at Viasat said this would disrupt the “lanes in space” that allow GEO to provide vital services. 

“If successful, this initiative would degrade and disrupt GSO service, reduce GSO capacity, constrain GSO innovation, and prevent GSO operators from deploying the same types of small user terminals that LEOs already deploy today. The entire world would suffer from the loss of competition,” Janka said. 

Janka argues that one that updates to EPFD would constrain equitable use of scarce spectrum assets that must be shared under ITU requirements. “These few actors seek this change despite having certified to regulators that they would meet the international rules that have defined these lanes in space for over 20 years,” he said. 

Orbital Tolerance in LEO 

Regulatory consultant Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, former vice president of regulatory policy at OneWeb, predicts that this could be the last WRC conference focused on sharing with GEOs, arguing many GEO satellites currently in orbit won’t need to be replaced.  

She points to the importance of orbital tolerance in LEO, which is information about how much a constellation can deviate from the orbital information provided to ITU. This has implications for collisions, debris, and whether emerging space nations can access LEO in the future, Pritchard-Kelly said.  

“LEO constellations must separate their planes (or shells) slightly to avoid colliding with their own satellites as they approach the pole. Multiply that by six or seven other constellations all of which have filed for altitudes near each other, and it’s understandable that the ITU’s Agenda Item 7, Topic A will grapple with this significant issue so that these world-changing, internet-capable satellites can share and compete safely and sustainably,” she said.  

Gender Parity Resolution 

Beyond spectrum sharing concerns, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​the Radiocommunication Assembly (RA) that took place immediately preceding WRC from Nov. 13 to 17, adopted a resolution on gender equity, parity, and equality within the ITU. Manner applauded the conference for adopting the resolution because the ITU needs many voices focused on solutions to the problems of today. 

Women continue to be under-represented in the regional and international levels of the ITU’s Radiocommunication sector, Manner said, citing that at WRC-19, less than 20 percent of delegates were women. The Gender Equity Resolution calls on countries to include women and promote women into senior roles in their domestic, regional, and international processes, Manner said. 

“The problems that the ITU-R is trying to solve are hard and getting harder.  We need to bring all types of problem solvers to participate,” Manner said. “Women have historically faced barriers to participation in most fields but particularly scientific and technical fields, which are most important to the ITU-R. Increased participation of women in the ITU-R at all levels will benefit countries, regions and the entire telecommunications world by bringing broader perspectives, innovation, and creativity to the discussions of the ITU-R and the decisions that are taken at WRC.”