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Regulatory Review: Satellite IP And Multimedia–In Search Of A Niche

By | February 1, 2003

      by Gerry Oberst

      Will they or won’t they? Toward the end of December last year, one major satellite operator announced it was cutting back on an existing Internet satellite service to consumers. In the exact same time frame, another major operator announced new and expanded high-speed Internet connections by satellite in Europe. To further stir up the pot, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) held a substantial three-day workshop in Geneva on the same issues in mid-December.

      The impression left from the ITU workshop is that this is the up and coming business opportunity for the satellite field. One highly placed speaker on the first day said, "there is a growing need for satellite links to carry Internet Protocol (IP) traffic."

      The workshop presented a wide range of interesting information, ranging from a presentation on "Satellite Communications for Dummies" to highly detailed background on current systems. Both technical and regulatory details were on the agenda.

      Starting with the basics, the ITU’s telecoms standardization bureau (ITU-T) opened the event with a "dummies" overview. After an introduction to satellite communications, it moved quickly through a historical perspective to special risks that the industry faces. The historical side noted how low-earth orbit satellites first reached for the sky with ambitious plans, but then "fell back to earth" with a series of bankruptcies.

      The ITU-T closely focused on what it is doing, including the types of specifications to take satellites into account. It presented the rest of the workshop objectives of examining the business case, identifying necessary standards and focusing on the use of satellites to bridge the "digital divide."

      From the radio regulation side of the ITU, an opening address presentation noted the various study groups that are studying IP and multimedia over satellite. The issues at stake involve error performance, technical and operational characteristics for mobile satellite services and interoperability of satellite and terrestrial IP networks.

      Keynote speakers from three corners of the globe then described activities in Africa, Asia and Europe. (Participation from North America seemed underweight at much of the workshop.) A call to action was expressed by Ahmed Toumi, the director general of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, which is the remnants of the old Intelsat now that the satellite assets have been transferred to private Intelsat Ltd. Toumi said the world’s telecoms community should promote the emergence of a global broadband satellite infrastructure. Among the goals would be to provide Internet access using low-cost terminals, with dedicated spectrum and orbital resources.

      Toumi further stressed this initiative by saying sufficient new spectrum and orbital positions for the global infrastructure could be identified. "For this purpose," said Toumi, "countries may be requested to modify part of their national allocations in the ITU plans [for fixed and broadcasting satellite services]."

      These were stirring words, but they are not obviously reflected on the agenda of the next World Radio Conference (WRC) this July in Geneva. A presentation on regulatory aspects later in the workshop identified that only a few of the issues coming up at the next WRC will affect IP and multimedia applications. Among the relevant WRC03 agenda items are finalization of sharing criteria for broadcasting and fixed satellites services in the 12 GHz range, new aeronautical mobile satellite allocation at 14 GHz and new high-density fixed satellite service above 17.3 GHz.

      Nevertheless, there is an agenda item at WRC03 concerning "Resolution 80," which deals with seeking equitable access to orbital resources. Creative use of that item could provide links to the global infrastructure concept discussed at the workshop.

      Continuing on with the workshop itself, subsequent sessions involved satellite operators discussing the business, and also reviews of such topics as performance and quality, network issues and multimedia satellite applications. The discussion quickly became in-depth, with one slide, for example, asking "How to have protocol extension protocol (PEP) in TCP/IP for satellite latency and still have IP Sec over the entire path?" (If nothing else, satellite IP is going to give us a marvelous new set of acronyms…).

      Day three of the workshop opened with an examination of the next generation of satellite services and the user perspective on existing sources of multimedia and IP service over satellite. There were not actually any users on the panel, but it is always useful to mention them.

      These topics supported a full three-day workshop of discussion in Geneva. But will they support satellite networks and profitable operations in these difficult days for the industry? One speaker in Geneva said that 700 and 1,500 transponders are forecast for IP traffic in 2005 and 2010, respectively. The picture at the end of 2002 was too cloudy to read. If that range of numbers is actually achieved, the future is not so dark for an industry in search of new niches.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. The URL for the ITU workshop is

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