Satellite’s Spectrum Disorder

Notwithstanding exceptions like NASA and SpaceX, the space sector is not good at selling itself.

So long as budget or license or spectrum approvals are sustained, this may not matter. But these things can’t be taken for granted, as the satellite industry will learn again at the next World Radiocommunication Conference, WRC-19, three years hence in Geneva.

In its approach to WRC-19, the satellite industry should consider three German states — Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria and Bremen. Give me a minute to make the link.

WRC-19 is shaping up to be just as big a challenge as WRC-15, which ended last November with generally good news for users of C-band telecommunications, radar Earth observation satellites and Ka-band systems.

At the recent CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum in Singapore, Intelsat associate general counsel Gonzalo de Dios and Ethan Lavan, director of orbit resources at Eutelsat, said satellite spectrum preservation would confront opposition on multiple fronts, including C-, Ku-, Ka- and Q/V frequencies.

Given the preparatory meeting schedule of International Telecommunication Union (ITU) governments, they said the time to start the defense of spectrum resources at WRC-19 is now, especially since the U.S. government’s current position makes it look increasingly like an adversary (Cue FCC chief Tom Wheeler telling satellite execs in March: Get on our train, or get run over by it).

At WRC-15, it became clear that the satellite industry was incapable of providing the ITU with estimates of how many people — in South America, Africa and Asia — were using C-band satellite connections. Why? Because these receive-only terminals in many nations do not require a license and are not registered.

More importantly, satellite operators’ own customers, who sell and install these terminals, did not make the effort to report detailed figures out of concerns for their individual competitive positions. The threat from the ITU was not just “use it or lose it,” but “prove it or lose it.”

All these years of frequency battles and the industry’s own customers still just sit there? Here’s how AsiaSat Chief Executive William Wade put it:

“We as an industry perfectly understand where the threats are coming from. Where we have not done as good a job as we could do is with our customers, who do not fully recognize how serious this is for their business. We go to great lengths to try to get them to understand, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to be getting through.

“If you look at the distribution infrastructure that many people have in place, you would expect that they’d jump all over this, and see it as a priority that [the frequencies are] protected. But it’s almost an afterthought. They are leaving it to us to do the legwork. We are a very small industry. To have a major impact, we have got to rally our customer base around us. Look at media, the shipping industry and others. If these people step up behind us, it would have a greater effect. That’s what it’s going to take.”

The media and shipping interests could learn from the three German states that have written a joint letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel urging government support for space investment at the upcoming European Space Agency ministerial conference in December.

Despite their very different political colorations, the three states understand their common interest in maintaining a vibrant regional space sector and its engineering jobs. It’s a bottom-up approach that was credited with solidifying German Federal government support for the future Ariane 6 rocket at the last ministerial conference.

If your customers decline to stand up and be counted, you have a problem. Geneva winters can be long.