01 December 2023
WRC-23 satcoms issues at a glance: Asian perspectives
The World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC) is undoubtedly one of the most significant events in the telecommunications industry globally. The primary function of this quadrennial event is to review the treaty governing the use of radio frequency spectrum and orbital resources, the allocation of which is a contentious issue due to its scarce and finite nature. As the next edition of the month-long conference unfolds on 20 November in Dubai, UAE, national administrations and industry players are already starting to finalise their strategies on the various agenda items (AI) to be tackled.
WRC agenda items are preliminarily discussed through the various ITU regional organisations, with Asia being under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT). The APT is one of the more interesting regional organisations, given its geographic dispersion and the disparity in the political systems and socioeconomic development of the national administrations that it comprises. As such, many interests come into play, making it difficult to reach a consensus. While there are set rules prescribing the number of administrations required to adopt a common regional position for WRC, the APT tends to adopt a more conservative approach in practice, with unanimity in opinion being the apparent preference.
Given that satellite communications operate on an international basis, the WRC provides a centralised forum for governments and industry to effectively harmonise rules on satellite communications to guide domestic regulatory frameworks. WRC-23 would cover several satellite-related issues, and APT administrations have already come up with their common position on these, especially as they stand to affect the state of connectivity in the region.
Satellite issues in WRC-23
Two agenda items revolve around the use of certain frequency bands by Earth stations in motion (ESIMs) in the fixed-satellite service globally. ESIMs provide broadband communications on moving platforms, such as aircraft, ships, and land vehicles. These allow people to remain connected through their devices while in transit and are ordinarily outside the scope of terrestrial services, such as being on a commercial flight. The issues to be discussed at WRC-23 aim to harmonise the use of ESIMs in the Ku band (AI 1.15) and expand their use to connect with NGSO space stations in the Ka-band (AI 1.16). These changes have the potential to augment existing services currently being provided by operators, improving the connectivity of users. Currently, APT administrations support maintaining the status quo but are nonetheless open to these proposals, provided that pending issues are resolved. A leading concern is the management of possible interference that might arise from these new services.
The conference also intends to address certain issues that could potentially improve the interaction between geostationary satellite orbit (GSO) and non-GSO systems in light of the latter’s exponential rise over recent years. These include issues on orbital tolerances (AI 7A), post-milestone reporting (AI 7B), and aggregate interference to GSOs (AI 7J). On the issue of orbital tolerances, Asia-Pacific jurisdictions support the development of the definition of tolerances of NGSO space stations in the FSS, BSS, and MSS in the context of applicable ITU regulatory procedures. They are not in favour of overregulation or regulatory methods that are too stringent or inflexible to allow the operation of new and existing satellites without the possibility of making adjustments to them. APAC states also support the development of post-milestone procedures for NGSO systems in the FSS, BSS, and MSS. Meanwhile, some differences remain over the determination of interference levels, such as those relating to calculation methods and the compliance method in the event of a breach. As such, no common proposal has been developed for this issue.
In addition to these topics, other equally important issues involving satellites include inter-satellite communications (AI 1.17) and new spectrum allocations for the broadcast satellite service (AI 1.19). APAC countries have already reached a common position on both of these areas.
Prospective issues for WRC-27
The upcoming conference will also decide the agenda for the WRC’s next edition in 2027. Various administrations have proposed possible topics to be covered, with 12 issues pertaining to satellites considered.
One of these proposed conducting studies on a possible worldwide allocation to the MSS for the future development of low-data-rate satellite services within 1.5-5GHz. Similar to the outcome of the narrowband MSS issue for AI 1.18, this proposal has not been supported, citing concerns regarding incomplete and inconclusive studies.
A similar proposal concerns possible new spectrum allocations for MSS below 4GHz. Recognising the lack of adequate terrestrial connectivity in certain areas, mobile satellite systems have been put forward as a means to supplement IMT coverage. Through this planned new allocation for the satellite component of IMT, more spectrum resources could be utilised for the further development and operationalisation of satellite direct-to-handset (DTH) services, enabling direct communication between NGSO satellites and IMT user equipment, such as smartphones. Its lead proponents in Asia include Japan and China, as well as Pacific Island states like Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Vanuatu, which often rely on satellite communications for reliable connectivity. While discussions on the issue have been productive, APAC administrations have been unable to agree a common position due to a lack of time to discuss other salient points, including the specific frequency bands to be covered. This topic is among the pending issues to be discussed by APAC countries during their coordination meetings on the sidelines of WRC-23. Way forward The satellite-related issues to be tackled at the upcoming WRC will have wide-ranging repercussions on the state of connectivity worldwide, including in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the increasingly agile development of technological systems necessitates regulatory frameworks that can cope with these changes and innovations. As such, while the telecommunications industry stands to resolve a number of topics at WRC-23, efforts to achieve true universal connectivity will continue.