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Spectrum Interference in the New World of Space and 5G

By | January 18, 2019


As a spectrum manager in the commercial communications satellite industry, one issue that of daily concern is spectrum interference. With the advent of what I call a new dawn for the space and terrestrial communications industry, this issue is an increasing challenge as new technologies allow the greater exploitation of the spectrum environment. However, with these exciting opportunities, there is a greater likelihood of unacceptable spectrum interference. Nonetheless, working together, we can minimize this risk into our commercial satellites and other space-borne and terrestrial communications technologies, thereby bringing high quality communications services to the United States and globally.

The satellite industry is heading in this exciting time. First, the digital universe is growing faster than any time before. For example, when we look at 2013, the digital universe represented by the stack of memory in tablets would only reach two thirds of the way to the moon. In 2020, we expect that stack to grow to 6.6 times to the moon. Further, in 2015 we had less than 5 Exabyte of global mobile traffic and in 2020 we estimate there will we more than 30 Exabyte of global mobile traffic — and that growth is not expected to slow down — especially with the advent of the roll-out of the 5G global network of networks early next decade.

It is not surprising then that when you look at the space environment, the use of spectrum by the commercial satellite industry’s growth is astounding. First, we expect demand for broadband services provided by Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite networks to increase exponentially with the greater demands for speed and capacity and greater needs to bring services anywhere at any time. Today’s systems, including Hughes, are supporting Federal Communications Commission (FCC)-defined broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps and more, with speeds of 100 Mbps and more expected in the early part of the next decade. The commercial satellite broadband industry today supports millions of subscribers worldwide and has invested tens of billions of dollars in its networks. These investments and subs keep increasing and their communications must be protected.

On the horizon we are also seeing the deployment of networks of thousands of Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) satellites that will bring advanced broadband and 5G services globally on a cost-effective basis, including to the polar regions and the oceans, which today have limited coverage. Other NGSO systems will provide a variety of services including weather monitoring, tracking, and the like. These systems are not just important for commercial services, but also are critical for other uses such as those of the U.S. military, national security, and public safety. And once again, the development of these systems is resulting in significant investment in infrastructure in the U.S. and globally. And because of these and other growing space demands, we have seen the development of a strong U.S. launch industry with new entrants such as SpaceX and Blue Origin and others on the horizons. In addition, we have been able to attract increasing satellite manufacturing capabilities, such as Airbus in Florida. As a satellite operator, I welcome these new players who bring increased competition into satellite industry, as well as increased reliability and lower costs.

Each commercial satellite system will have its own individual demands for spectrum that are required to be met and are important for the United States and the world to meet needs for 5G communications. Of course, it is critical to ensure that these communications are protected from harmful interference.

When we look at the potential for harmful interference to commercial satellites, we must not limit our examination to looking up only –spaced based threats. An equally important area where we may face interference is from terrestrial technologies including 5G, as well as other non-terrestrial technologies, such as high-altitude platforms.

Now, the good news. We are starting with a very sound basis to protect commercial satellites from harmful interference. On the space side, between satellite systems, the International Telecommunications Union (an arm of the United Nations) has implemented an effective coordination process between satellite networks for spectrum (and also the use of the GEO). Under this process, satellite network operators engage in coordination to avoid harmful interference to one another and, because of this framework, are able to actively address interference concerns before launch and occurrences when they happen. Further, there are domestic and international rules that govern spectrum use that protect against the potential for harmful interference. These include the ITU Radio Regulations, which are updated every three to four 4 years at World Radiocommunication Conferences as well as domestic rules that countries, including the United States have implemented that impose technical restrictions on operations to prevent unacceptable interference.

In addition, there is a fair amount of informal operator to operator communications to avoid harmful interference and address issues as they occur. Because of the need for all operators to avoid harmful interference, both the formal and informal approaches generally work well. The issue comes up if there are bad actors or folks who are simply uninformed about these processes; in this case neither formal nor informal processes will work.

With the current focus on an increasing awareness and need for a sustainable space environment, combined with increasing pressure on access to spectrum, the White House has announced several important policies that should advance interference protection. First, earlier this year, the President released Space Directive 3 (SD 3), which has the important goal of preventing unintentional Radio Frequency (RF) interference. In particular, SD3 recognizes that growing orbital congestion is increasing the risk to U.S. space assets from unintentional RF interference and that the United States should continue to improve policies, processes, and technologies for spectrum use (including allocations and licensing) to address these challenges and ensure appropriate spectrum use for current and future operations.

In addition, SD 3 tasks the U.S. government to verify consistency between policy and existing regulations regarding global access; investigate the advantages of addressing spectrum in conjunction with the development of STM systems, standards, and best practices; and promote flexible spectrum use; and investigate emerging technologies for potential use by space systems.

To this end, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, in coordination with the Secretaries of State and Defense, the NASA administrator, and the director of national intelligence, and in consultation with the chairman of the FCC, are required coordinate to mitigate the risk of harmful interference and promptly address any harmful interference that may occur.

SD 3 has been complimented by the recent White House Spectrum Memo, which has a domestic focus and the goal of which is to increase spectrum access for all users, including on a shared basis, through transparency of spectrum use and improved cooperation and collaboration between federal and non-federal spectrum stakeholders. In addition, it charges the government with creating flexible models for spectrum management; developing advanced technologies, innovative spectrum-utilization methods, and spectrum-sharing tools and techniques that increase spectrum access, efficiency, and effectiveness; building a secure, automated capability to facilitate assessments of spectrum use and expedite coordination of shared access among federal and non-federal spectrum stakeholders; andimproving the global competitiveness of United States terrestrial and space-related industries and augment the mission capabilities of federal entities through spectrum policies, domestic regulations, and leadership in international forums.

So, how can we leverage these policies to improve the satellite industry’s protection from interference? Let’s start with the very basics. What does the commercial satellite industry need to be protected from harmful interference?

Our first building block is the one we rely on today. Use of the ITU coordination process, as well as the ITU radio regulations and domestic regulations which protect against interference. These regulations must be clear, transparent and not overly administratively burdensome as the White House policies recognize. However, SD 3 also recognizes that these processes must be improved. With an upcoming World Radio Conference this year important issues will be addressed on the large fleets of NGSO systems which are coming and how to better include them in the ITU coordination process. However, further action needs to be taken on a number of fronts, including for small satellites — especially as the operators may not be so sophisticated to understand existing processes.

In addition, domestic governments must address these challenges head on. In the United States, the FCC has been actively addressing both issues and is in the process of revising its regimes to begin to address the very real issue of having new fleets of NGSOs and small satellites operating in the RF spectrum resource.

While work is underway both on international and domestic bases, I am concerned that we are not moving quickly enough. Unfortunately, there are certain administrative processes that must be followed to address these important spectrum issues. Accordingly, as discussed below, it is important for governments and the ITU to start to look at ways to enable flexibility in the appropriate regulations to enable innovation. In addition, informal processes can help fill the gap. This is an area that warrants further attention.

Additionally, international and domestic work to manage spectrum interference must continue to be complimented by individual operator’s efforts at informal coordination. I am happy to report that several of our industry associations are actively looking at developing best practices to address these critical issues.

Moving on, the satellite industry also needs adequate access to spectrum with adequate interference protections contained in the regulatory regimes for all our uses — both gateways and user terminals; this means there are certain bands today where technology does not enable co-primary sharing between two ubiquitous services, such as 5G mobile terrestrial and satellite broadband to work on a non-interference basis. This means that interference from terrestrial systems and other non-terrestrial uses must be managed on both a domestic and international basis to ensure all services are able to operate free from unacceptable interference. This is a very real issue that is on-going at the WRC preparatory process. The terrestrial mobile industry is currently seeking 33 GHz of spectrum for 5G mobile terrestrial services, much of which is in bands already allocated to satellite communications and some of which is designated for satellite user terminal use Despite these existing satellite allocations and identifications, the wireless industry wants full and clear access to these bands — without any protections for the satellite, even though previous WRCs have recognized the need for spectrum for ubiquitous use of approximately four GHz of spectrum for satellite user terminals. This remains a critical issue for the industry and also for my company, as we are far along in the construction process of advanced broadband satellites in these bands. It would be unfortunate if the satellite industry is limited in the role it can play in the 5G network and in the future because of a lack of access to spectrum or access without required protections from interference.

In addition, to have access to adequate amounts of spectrum, spectrum allocations must be made on a technology natural basis and must be flexible. With regard to technology neutrality, this does not mean that spectrum has to be allocated equally among services — but it does means that no one technology or radio service should be favored. Unfortunately, we often see governments, especially in their fights to be first to have 5G, favor mobile wireless technologies over satellite and other technologies. Over the long-term, this will prove to be very short sighted in that they will be ill-equipped to deliver on the true vision of 5G — everywhere any time resilient communications.

I agree with the Administration’s goals of making allocations flexible. A good example of this is the recent movement by the satellite industry to enable use of the fixed satellite service for use by earth stations in motion. Because of archaic service definitions, mobility services cannot be considered to be a fixed satellite service. Because of this, the satellite industry had to spend a long study period to advance this flexibility both internationally and in the United States.

Further, we must have regionally and globally harmonized spectrum. Satellite systems are inherently global in nature and as satellites become a part of the 5G ecosystem, it is critical that they can benefit also from global economies of scale, as do terrestrial wireless operators. As I mentioned, the wireless industry, by arguing for globally identified 33 GHz of spectrum above 24 GHz for 5G terrestrial is essentially preventing satellite from having the ability to have any certainty for harmonized spectrum for our services. Because of the nature of satellite and very real constraints in space, we cannot have an unlimited number of bands on our system so that we can switch spectrum on a country-by-country basis; which is very different then terrestrial services that have this flexibility. By failing to provide global or at least regional harmonization for satellite spectrum, you are essentially limiting the ability of satellite systems to use the spectrum resource and putting in jeopardy their economic viability.

As we consider how to improve our space sustainability regime, spectrum and protection from interference is an important consideration. However, I am hesitant at this date to upset some of our long-standing approaches to managing spectrum which have been largely successful. I do, however, recognize the importance tie in and as improved space sustainability regimes are developed, interference protection must be a critical consideration. These regimes should consider what we have learned in the area of RF protection, and build on our successes. I am hopeful that many of the best practices that satellite operators utilize today to prevent harmful interference and coordinate spectrum can be recognized in this regime and might lead to similar approaches to enable a successful space traffic management regime.

I would note there is one more piece that is necessary for success — education. Today we largely have sophisticated space actors. However, with the advent of NewSpace and the easing of financial and other barriers to operating in space less sophisticated actors are participating. This means that we must find ways to educate them on both informal and formal processes. This is an important area for public-private efforts. Only by working together can we ensure that we have a truly sustainable space environment.

Finally, we must find a way to address bad actors. As we look at improving our spectrum management processes and expanding their reach to include new actors, we also must look at how to deter bad actors or actions by outliers and act now — before it is too late.

We, as a global community, have the opportunity to protect against the potential of interference, but we must act jointly and smartly to ensure that space-based communications systems are protected. The United States has a strong and entrepreneurial satellite communications industry, available to engage in global competition. To ensure we retain the strategic advantages afforded by space services, the United States needs to continue open and promote competitive markets and protect spectrum allocations for space services to compete.

Jennifer Manner EchoStar, Georgetown University, Satellite Industry Association (SIA).

Jennifer A. Manner is senior vice president of EchoStar and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of EchoStar or Georgetown University Law Center.