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Hot Orbital Slots: Is There Anything Left?

By Mark Holmes | March 1, 2008

      With satellite operators around the world looking to gain an edge in terms of offering new services, access to real estate is vital. However, with most of the so-called hot orbital slots taken, what opportunities remain for satellite operators to develop new positions or make better use of the existing slots?

      As satellite operators seek to make the most of their orbital slots, developments in satellite technology and a more progressive approach by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) offer the most promising methods to meet this goal. This is a multi-faceted debate with no easy answer as to what can be done to create additional room for more spacecraft. Most industry experts agree, however, that more can be done to free up slots and developing existing locations more effectively.

      The question as to whether there are still hot slots out there is a hard one to define. Issues such as frequency bands and separation of satellites has to be taken into account. “The simple answer is that no, there are not any orbital slots currently unused or unspoken for (as in allocated to satellites already under construction and expected to launch in the near future) that provide access to what might be considered significant markets,” says Andrea Maleter, technical director at Futron Corp. Rachel Villain, director space and communications, Euroconsult, adds, “It depends on frequency bands. Spectrum is attached to frequency bands and to service type. Ku-band slot with 2-degree spacing and the right elevation is certainly the most difficult to find.”

      However, others still see potential orbital real estate available. “There are certainly slots available,” says Max Engel, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “There are, however, many fewer slots available for commercial firms to provide services to already established markets being licensed by the countries they are in. Saying how many slots is not like saying, ‘Is this a liter bottle of water?’, because with the licensing being done by national entities under the ITU, the slots available in the United States for instance, are not unlimited. But Mexico has empty slots. Satmex has slots where its satellites will soon die. In that direction, I was rather surprised Eutelsat turned down the opportunity to buy Satmex because it would have bought them North American slots. So slots are getting tighter but there are still ways to add locations.”

      Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) also sees opportunities for satellite players. “Naturally, some regions such as the North American and European arcs are more heavily utilized than others, particularly in the C- and Ku-band frequencies. Growth opportunities continue to exist in other regions such as Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific. Satellite operators have been innovative in deploying higher-powered satellites with greater throughput and co-locating multiple spacecraft and using more advanced coding schemes to maximize the efficiency at each orbital slot. Other frequency bands, such as Ka-band, hold marked promise for continued growth.”

      Technology Improvements

      Another factor in this debate are the advances in satellite technology, which make it possible for satellites to be operated more closely together, says Maury Mechanick, Counsel in the Washington office of White & Case LLP. “When satellites were first launched in the 1960s and 70s, it was believed that satellites needed separation of a number of degrees in space to avoid interference problems,” he says. “Over time, the nominal standards for separation informally evolved first towards 3-degree separation and later and more formally — largely at the prodding of the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission) — to 2-degree spacing. Whether satellite separations appreciably less than 2-degree spacing may be feasible in the future remains to be seen. But even the difference between 3-degree spacing (which in a geosynchronous plane would limit the possible number of satellites in a particular frequency band to 120 orbital slots) as contrasted with 2-degree orbital spacing (which would limit the possible number of satellites to 180) is considerable.”

      Satellite spacing has become vital in gaining the most from assets in the sky. “The 2-degree spacing requirement pioneered by the FCC was a key example,” says Maleter. “The move to tweener satellites with 4.5-degree spacing for [direct-to-home spacecraft] in the United States is another. In addition, advances in ground station technology can help expand the utilization of spectrum to the same effect. So it is not just a matter of opening up new orbital slots but also how the satellite networks operate in the naturally limited number of slots available.”

      There also are other factors on the technology side having an impact on the issue. “Use of hybrid satellites is another factor that may contribute to the relative inefficiency in use of orbital resources, since satellites with transponders operating in both frequency bands are less likely to employ maximum frequency reuse techniques in either band, although use of hybrid satellites may nonetheless offer certain countervailing flexibility advantages,” says Mechanick.

      Engel also cites the importance of having larger satellites as a way to get around the fact that orbital slots are at a premium. “What is important is the amount of allocated spectrum because, as an example, Astra has five satellites in the 19.2 orbital position,” he says. “One of the things they are doing with their replacement strategy is replacing multiple satellites with single satellites. They are buying bigger more powerful satellites. They can have as many satellites in a slot as they have spectrum to use. So the real question when you talk about is not how much space there is, but how much spectrum. You can share a slot between satellites and even operators if you have spectrum. Depending on the nature of the spectrum, you can put more or less satellites in a given arc.”

      ITU Steps Up Oversight

      The filing mechanism for orbital slots also has come under the microscope in recent years, as some countries are pushing the ITU to crackdown on the use of so-called “paper satellites,” or spacecraft that most likely will not be manufactured or launched but instead are used to hold the slot for a given country. “The phenomenon of paper filings is a real, continuing problem, although the ITU has taken certain measures to try to discourage this,” says Mechanick. “One of the measures previously taken was to reduce the time period by which a satellite must be placed in orbit from nine to seven years. This, however, has not completely remedied the situation. Even so-called good citizens can be guilty of what in effect are paper filings, the clearest example being the United States at Ka-band, where the United States filed for a large number of orbital slots based on the filings of a number of U.S. companies, but where there would have been obvious bases for doubting that many of those systems would in fact actually be launched (and with actual experience having confirmed that this was the case).”

      Villain believes regulations have tightened up in terms of the management of slots. “It is still the case (about orbital slots not being utilized) but much less than before as national regulatory agencies and the ITU have defined policy rules to prevent paper filings,” she says.

      The ITU believes it has stronger measures in place to make sure slots are being filled within a more agreeable time frame. “Satellite overfiling behavior is on a much smaller scale now,” says Valery Timofeev, director of the ITU’s Radiocommunications Bureau. “The time scale in most cases now is seven years after you initiate the registration for the slots. If in those seven years, you are not informing the ITU of the implementation of the project, you will be requested to confirm the status of the project, and if there is no justification that the system is operational, it will be cancelled. We are doing this on a regular basis.”

      Because of the demand to gain access to space, the role of the ITU is more important than ever, says Timofeev. “The role of ITU and the Radiocommunication Bureau in particular is even more important than before, because the situation is becoming more and more complex with the appearance of new services and new users and the more complicated sharing situation on the orbit. We are the only entity and global focal point that is capable of providing all countries with a spectrum-orbit
      international management package which is efficiently co-ordinating their efforts and guaranteeing that their investments in space communications is wisely spent.”

      Like others, Timofeev cites technology improvements that have changed the rules, even for an organization like the ITU. “Things are today very much different from 20 years ago when you were free to choose any orbital
      positions without any practical coordination difficulties with the other users,” says Timofeev. “We had at that time the luxury of separation between neighboring satellites of 4 to 6 degrees. Now, if you check our current filing database in ITU, to have a neighboring satellite 6 degrees from yours is only a dream of the past. You will see some
      satellites using the same spectrum, separated by 1 or 2 degrees. It means you are obliged to accept more constraints for your operations. There are more interference probabilities.
      However, technology goes ahead, and what was not possible 20 years ago is now feasible.”

      Challenge To The Satellite Community

      Cooper, however, believes this issue will continue “to be a challenge to the satellite community. Unfortunately, the current process at the ITU still allows administrations to file for slots for spacecraft that will never be built,” she says. “The ITU planned bands are a good example of orbital slots that are set aside but are consistently under-utilized. This ultimately adds unnecessary costs and complications to new satellite development throughout the design and manufacturing stages. The ITU’s efforts to recover costs for satellite filings have had a positive downstream effect by reducing the time that paper filings in the non-planned bands sit in the queue,” she says.

      “There has in the past been a significant issue with the filing of applications just to hoard slots, but the ITU has cracked down on this, implemented new procedures including changing the length of time a slot can be held, and this issue has been improved dramatically,” says Maleter. “The big problem is that there are only a limited numbers of orbital positions from which it is possible to cover key markets, and so even if you open up orbital positions around these locations, it is difficult for new operators to make as good a business case as those already operating. There is, nevertheless, some room for the ITU to more aggressively monitor and manage the coordination system that exists so that operators who do not achieve coordination of their satellites give way to those waiting in line behind them.”

      Engel warns that an overzealous approach towards making slots active potentially could backfire, because new ideas can take a long time from concept to operational satellite. “WildBlue with Ka-band broadband is a very new application, and it took them something close to 10 years from the initial idea [to launching service],” he says. “They went bankrupt. They had issues. They had problems. They lost their second orbital slot. But they did eventually get a satellite up in the slot they retained, and it is doing great. It is a big commercial success. They are filling up their spot beams so much that they can’t add new people immediately. So if you had made a really hard effort to [free up an unused slot], we would not have WildBlue.”

      However, the ITU can only do so much, and more needs to be done at the country administration level so that orbital slots are active, says Mechanick. “Because the ITU lacks real enforcement power — and there is considerable reluctance to grant it such power — it would need to be at the administration level,” he says. “Administrations can be more vigilant in how they license slots and also in the frequency with which they return slots to the ITU that will not be used. I would not rule out the possible positive influence of regional telecommunications organizations such as CITEL (the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission), PATU (the Pan-African Telecommunications Union) or others, which if nothing else, can help promote a best practices regime in terms of encouraging use of more efficient spectrum utilization techniques.”

      The SIA has been active “in sensitizing governments to the commercial impact of their regulatory and spectrum management decisions,” says Cooper. “Satellite operators assume considerable risk when investing in new satellites, and they rely on regulatory certainty for market access, reasonable administrative fees and spectrum availability to allow them to build new satellites at new locations. With a healthy policy backdrop, the industry — from satellite operators, ground equipment manufacturers and customers — are fully committed to innovating and delivering quality communications services throughout the world.”

      Short Supply

      Despite the advances in technology and improvements in the administration of orbital slots, the playing field for orbital slots still remains crowded, and the best way to help create more space for new satellites likely is the development of other frequencies such as Ka-band, says Mechanick. “It is fair to say that orbital slots at C- and Ku-band are probably in relatively short supply, largely for historical reasons,” he says. “However, there are probably a large number of available orbital slots at Ka-band for a couple of reasons. Although there were a number of Ka-band filings in the late 1990s by various administrations, these filings were not likely to be quite as extensive as the collective filings to date for C- and Ku-band frequencies, which have a much longer track record. Moreover, many of the original Ka-band filings are now likely to be on the verge of expiring since so few Ka-band systems have to date actually been brought into service,” he says.

      “It should be noted that just because a particular slot is fully utilized for Ku-band over the Northern Hemisphere, there is still potential for the same slot to be used for service at either Ku-band or other frequencies in the Southern Hemisphere,” says Maleter. “This is a matter of satellite design and is an area with great potential. Other technology enhancements can also be considered that might reduce the spacing required between satellites without causing interference,” she says.

      Another move that may free up some slots is regional consolidation, says Engel. “Slots are not like parking places. There is not a steady turnover of people leaving with their satellites and driving home,” he says. “This is a very slow moving market and I would not at any time anticipate old satellite slots being vacated. You get access to slots far more frequently by buying the owner, which is what Intelsat did with PanAmSat and Loral’s North American assets. It was not just done to get slots but also to become players in the more lucrative video market, but it was the only way Intelsat could have gained so many slots. Alternatively, you can find an unused or underused location and make it valuable by providing compelling services that no one else is offering.”

      Bottom Line

      Space has become congested. There is not an inexhaustible supply of attractive orbital slots for satellite operators, and as the economy becomes more global, access to this real estate becomes even more important. However, other frequency bands remain widely under-used, so plenty of opportunities exist for satellite operators to find ways to meet the needs of their customers. The challenge is to work within these new parameters.