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Paper Satellite Contribution to Congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum

By Dr Henry J. Meyerhoff

The ITU has received an ever-increasing number of filings from administrations for Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum since international satellite communications were introduced in the 1960's. To allow radio interference-free operation, the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum becomes an international limited natural resource, requiring for its orderly use, the application of Radio Regulations as formulated by World Radio Conferences (WRCs) of the ITU. Such a procedure entails the frequency coordination among administrations of satellite networks that might cause unacceptable mutual radio interference due to their close spacing to one another in the Geostationary Satellite Orbit. On successful completion of the process the satellite network receives international recognition to operate in a radio interference-free mode by appearing in the ITU Master International Frequency Register. The congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum as reflected by the above large number of filings for the limited resource is causing considerable complication to the coordination procedure, and it has been proposed to reduce the number of ITU filings by eliminating paper satellites, which are defined as those satellites with little if any chance of ever being launched. It is argued that since such satellites are unlikely to clutter up the Geostationary Satellite Orbit, they merely contribute to an apparent congestion and considerably increase the load and scope of coordination and registration work for ‘real’ contenders for orbital slots. This paper examines possible causes of the present problem of a massive number of ITU filings, the implications of the above suggestion regarding elimination of paper satellites, and suggests other solutions to the pressing problem of the congested Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum, some that can be readily implemented without fundamental changes to the present international radio regulations.

The ITU Concept governing the use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum among nations, Members of the ITU

Among the basic provisions concerning the purposes of the ITU set forth in Article I of the Constitution and Convention are

  1. To maintain and extend international cooperation between all Members of the Union for the improvement and rational use of telecommunications of all kinds;
  2. To promote the development of technical facilities and their most efficient operation with a view to improving the efficiency of telecommunication services, increasing their usefulness and making them so far as possible generally available to the public;
  3. To promote the extension of the benefits of the new telecommunication technologies to all the world's inhabitants;
  4. To foster collaboration among its Members with a view to the establishment of rates at levels as low as possible consistent with an efficient service and taking account of the necessity for maintaining independent financial administration of telecommunication on a sound basis.
The ITU also contains obligations for its Members, namely in providing international telecommunication services for the public without priority or preference as far as charges and safeguards are concerned covered by Article 33 and their maintenance by Article 38. In addition Members are responsible for controlling harmful interference to the radio services of other countries that may be caused by their operating agencies under Article 6, except with regard to military radio installations covered under Article 48. The right to cut off private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency is dealt with in Article 34.

Of particular interest to use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum, Article 44 requires that Members shall endeavour to limit the number of frequencies and the spectrum used to the minimum essential to provide in a satisfactory manner the necessary services, bearing in mind the resource is limited and must be used rationally efficiently and economically so that countries may have equitable access to it.

Behind these provisions are the basic assumptions that the use of international radio telecommunications is for the benefit of all countries and all the world's inhabitants in an equitable manner, at least cost to the customer assuming at the same time responsible national financial management.

Missing among the basic provisions is the concept that the provision of telecommunications is a commercial service, whose profitability is further enhanced in an atmosphere of scarcity.

The Commercial use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum among operators in a deregulated privatized international telecommunications environment

Telecommunications have been bolstered by technology and trade to become a dominant feature in the economic life of nearly all States. They have revolutionized together with the computer and related entertainment industries modern living standards. At the same time, with the demise of the State-planned economies, both in the former Communist World and ex-colonial developing countries, present dominant thinking is to replace bureaucratic government by the private sector in all economic activity. The rich industrialized countries and their financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to name just two, are propagating the viewpoint that unregulated private competition leads to more efficient use of resources in the best interests of the consumer, not mentioning that the interests of the shareholder of the privatized service providers have first preference over the environment, the customer, and the employee with the exception of corporate officers and their generous share options.

Telecommunications service, as distinguished from the computer and entertainment industries with which it is now so closely combined, in the past after its initial introductory phases has been largely government-run, usually as a state monopoly, with the international aspects taken care of by the ITU, whose Members are these same administrations. The Constitution and Convention of the ITU referred to above in section 2 were developed by the Members in a spirit of cooperation, realising that for radio interference-free operation rules must be established to allow international service with standardized equipment and procedures for the general benefit of the world's inhabitants at the least cost.

In today's world fascinated by cut-throat competition whose brutality is somewhat masked by, modern phraseology of level playing fields, some of the ITU provisions for Telecommunications mentioned above in section 2 no longer apply. Service to the community is secondary to profit maximization, and shareholder interests of the privatized telecommunications operators come before those of the public and way ahead of the operators' employees, whose job security has vanished. Not that State controlled monopoly operators were always efficient or incorruptible, far from it, but it is often forgotten by the vociferous advocates of deregularization of telecommunication services the enormous progress achieved in the first hundred years from basic telephone to satellite television under mainly government monopoly control. In the present environment, the public interest trails that of the business community, and since the privatized service provider is essentially interested in profit maximization, he will provide the minimum service at the maximum price, with no heed for the social objectives achieved previously by government cross-subsidization. Competition in telecommunications services may initially give the impression of reducing the cost to the consumer, but consider just the enormous expenditure on service advertising required in a competitive setting and where that must come from. In the USA and Europe, licences to use parts of the radio frequency spectrum were recently auctioned for over 100 billion dollars from potential service providers, a sum which must be recuperated from the customer. And the resources that are lost when one of the competitors falls by the wayside are usually not factored into the efficient-use equation. Added to this is the present merger phenomenon among the major privatized entities to move towards a telecommunications service industry controlled by a few corporate giants whose aim is to suppress competition from smaller concerns, and be accountable not to democratic government but to pension funds and other major private investors, with not only a complete disregard for resulting increased unemployment, but a deep satisfaction in the consequent disparity in wealth within the community. If the state-controlled telecommunications enterprise was corrupt, inefficient and mismanaged, it is more likely than not that handing over this public utility to a private consortium will not affect that pervading outlook.

Perhaps the most glaring inconsistency with the above provisions of the ITU regulations, mentioned above in section 2, and the new telecommunications environment is the requirement to use the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum rationally efficiently and economically so that countries may have equitable access to it, by limiting the number of frequencies and the spectrum used to the minimum essential to provide in a satisfactory manner the necessary services. This makes no commercial sense, where need is replaced by greed, where congestion implies scarcity and scarcity adds economic value to such a limited resource, where profits are always maximized and all terms such as rational, equitable, efficient, economical, satisfactory etc. are defined in terms of the newly resurrected religion called the marketplace.

Congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum in theory and in practice, the paper satellite contribution

In the liberalized deregulated privatized international telecommunications environment it has become highly profitable to provide service using the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum. Such use of the resource, limited in terms of possibility of radio interference-free operation, requires ITU registration of the satellite network by administrations, a procedure that involves coordination of the satellite network with other such systems using the same frequency bands, covering overlapping service areas on the Earth from nearby Geostationary Orbit locations. The underlying ITU principle of "first come, first served" , giving priority in the coordination process, encourages early filings. There is no substantial fee paid to the ITU neither for the filing, nor any for the use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum, but there is the expense of the coordination procedure, which however is a small fraction of the cost of the satellite network, and an even smaller one of the profit of operating the system. Introducing a radio interference-free operating satellite network is a costly affair, from concept to filing to construction to launch and errors encountered at the beginning of the project are much more easily corrected than later on. Certain phases must be completed before proceeding to the next, obviously one does not launch an incomplete satellite, but for others it is necessary to plan for the launch sometime in advance. To complete the filing requires sometimes a long drawn-out coordination of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum, which may not always be accomplished before operation starts.

The financing of the satellite project requires a considerable outlay, and to decrease the risk of failure, investors often require the assurance that the international regulatory obligations i.e. registration with the ITU, be completed before they will consider going ahead with ordering the satellite and its launch. Since the cost of filing including coordination are relatively low, since the said coordination gives priority on a first-come-first-served basis, and since there are no financial penalties associated with an eventual no-show, it appears advantageous for an administration to stake a claim to the future use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum by filing the details of a corresponding satellite network with the ITU at the earliest possible moment for the unplanned frequency bands. (For the planned frequency bands, the distribution of Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum follows a different procedure in which such claims have been settled during the associated ITU Planning Conference.)

The ITU regulations stipulate that the network to be registered should be put into use within five years of the initial Advanced Publication Filing (API), containing specified general information, including frequency bands, orbit location, period of validity etc. The former limit of five years may be extended to a maximum of seven years, provided certain conditions are met. ‘Request for Coordination’ (RFC) filing, to be submitted within two years of receipt of the API filing, otherwise the registration procedure is terminated, and receivable only six months after receipt of the API, contains more specific data about the Geostationary Satellite network to enable administrations to undertake coordination of their networks with the incoming filing.In publishing the RFC in its biweekly BRIFIC, the ITU indicates the administrations having satellite networks with which the notifying administration must coordinate before the new satellite network can be entered into the International Master Frequency Register.

In the coordination process, priority is accorded on the basis of date of receipt of the RFC information by the ITU, and various attempts are made to find suitable conditions under which the coordination may be satisfactorily completed. These may include satellite network parameter changes based on calculations of carrier to interference ratios that result in values considered acceptable according to ITU recommendations, or other solutions that allow interference-free operation of the coordinated networks.

The ITU is then informed of the successful result but not necessarily the important details, and the satellite network is then entered into the International Master Frequency Register, provisionally if the date of putting into use of the satellite network lies in the future.

Inclusion in the International Master Frequency Register provides recognition for the network to operate without harmful interference from networks of other administrations on the basis of ITU regulations, which have the force of international treaties.

As mentioned above, priority in the coordination procedure is accorded on the basis of date of receipt by the ITU of the RFC information, hence the rush to start the ITU registration procedure. Coordination is required with all networks, past and future, but the advantage lies with those received first at the ITU. The coordination process is based on the goodwill of administrations to accommodate each other in their use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum, and the give and take atmosphere of the coordination process encourages administrations to apply for more Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum so as to have something to give in exchange where something is required. Hence one well recognized strategy is to apply for several orbital slots for similar satellites, in the hope of successfully coordinating some of them without burdensome restrictions on all of them. Another is to apply for the full frequency band in the ITU Table of Frequency Allocations, where only a small portion will be used, the remainder being used for barter purposes. Of course, such excessive demands may in future correspond more closely to requirements but for the present they constitute items affecting congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum as determined by the large number of ITU filings.

To alleviate coordination problems associated with the congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum, the proposal has been made to eliminate paper satellites, which are defined as those satellites which are filed with the ITU with little if any chance of ever being launched. It is argued that since such satellites are unlikely to clutter up the Geostationary Satellite Orbit, they merely contribute to an apparent congestion and considerably increase the load of coordination and registration for real contenders for orbital slots.

Various suggestions have been put forward to distinguish "paper satellites" from the others,

  1. Those which at the time of ITU filing have not submitted a "due diligence" authenticated declaration",
  2. Those which would not be able or willing to pay some contribution for the registration and use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum,
  3. Those for which coordination has been undertaken as a means of providing bargaining power and international prestige but nothing more substantive.

The first suggestion would bias the use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum in favour of satellite manufacturers, or established wealthy operators or administrations who have the means to practice "due diligence" in the form of a business plan, scheduled start-up and launch program etc. at the expense of innovative entrepreneurs who, to obtain the necessary financing, must assure investors and/or the banking community that the regulatory aspects have been settled beforehand. This is not equitable access, nor is it a level playing field approach.

The second suggestion wherein a charge is made by the ITU for such a filing which would correspond either to the amount of Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum required, or to the amount of ITU registration work, some of which would be refunded if the satellite is put into use. Such a burden would obviously fall heavier on a smaller administration, apart from requiring a fundamental change in the ITU constitution.

The third suggestion would impact on the coordination strategy by disallowing multiple orbit slot filings, and would rule out the lease of a coordinated orbital slot. It is not evident that a fundamental distinction exists between renting out a coordinated orbital slot and renting out capacity on a satellite in such a spot, one is more upstream than the other. It is clear that the element of capital risk is greater for the investor with a satellite in orbit looking for customers, than the entrepreneur who has merely had the expense of coordinating an orbital slot, but these distinctions are not incorporated in the ITU concepts governing the present use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum. Nor are the details of any coordination agreement always communicated to the ITU, it being a bilateral agreement among administrations.

Solutions to coordination problems associated with congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum
There are other means of combating coordination problems related to congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum resulting from the large number of ITU filings that would require less fundamental modification of the present ITU regulations, some merely their enforcement.

  1. The extension from five to seven years (previously six to nine years) for putting the frequency assignments into use is abrogated. The cause for the extension was related to a series of launch failures at a point in history, and that excuse is no longer valid.
  2. The ITU biannual enquiry into the continued operation of the satellite frequencies, and their removal from the International Master Frequency List if no longer in use. For lack of manpower, this procedure (RR1569) has been discontinued at the ITU, but could be reinstated at shorter time intervals given the speed of modem telecommunications.
  3. The limitation of period of validity of a satellite network to 10 or 15 years, corresponding to a reasonable investment recovery period and the rate of technological progress for satellite systems. Its removal thereafter from the International Master Frequency Register would avoid preserving the priority of its use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum ad infinitum.
  4. The obligatory periods of four months for responding to requests for coordination be respected after which agreement may be assumed, and a maximum period be instituted for bilateral negotiations so that the total time for achieving agreement is limited.
  5. Beyond some orbital spacing that depends of the frequency band used, coordination indicated by Delta T/T criterion is not required. For example satellites using C-band frequencies do not need to coordinate beyond a 10 degree spacing. In the meantime such limits have been agreed upon by World Radio Conferences.

Today there is still the problem of coordination of satellite networks in the GSO, with a backlog of filings of over two years. The ITU cost recovery scheme has considerably reduced the number of new such filings, but there remains the danger that satellite operators will be tempted to bypass the ITU regulations, resulting either in no radio interference-free international telecommunications via satellites or efficient inequitable use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum by only the most powerful entities. Some reform is required now to avoid the either alternative.

Dr Henry J Meyerhoff
Henry J. Meyerhoff was born in Berlin (1935), educated at George Watson’s College (1941-1951), read Electrical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh (B.Sc.Hons,1953-1956) followed by a Ph.D.(1959-1962) from the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College). In between, he spent a year in Buenos Aires with Sudametal SA, an Import-Export firm (1952-1953), later did a graduate apprenticeship and a year’s research at Marconi’s W.T.Co.Ltd, Chelmsford (1956-1959). In 1963 he joined Huntec Ltd, Toronto to assist in the development of new seismic instruments for mineral exploration, followed by a three year stint with Ampex Corporation, Redwood City, applying communication theory to oil exploration. In 1968 he joined Comsat, Washington D.C. to carry out R&D for space communications, and in 1976 he left for the ITU in Geneva concerned with international radio regulations, in particular applied to satellite coordination. He has also taught part-time at Waterloo University, Ontario (1964) and Rice University Houston (1967), and presented and published papers on geophysics, and communication theory.

Dr Meyerhoff on retirement from ITU in 1995 became a consultant with Space Spectrum Coordination Consultants, Ltd, and acts as a delegate to ITU World Radio Conferences and Study Groups.

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