ECC Newsletter December 2022

Reaching new heights with satellite technology

A CEPT workshop in November discussed innovations in the satellite sector and the resulting regulatory challenges

Satellite technology has made huge strides forward in recent years. Improvements in launch capabilities and reduction in satellite sizes have made it easier for new applicants to enter the arena.

As a result, the satellite market has changed dramatically over the past decade. It is no longer the domain of big government agencies and large corporations only. Smaller companies are getting in on the act.

As with every burgeoning industry, this has thrown up challenges for regulators and greater demands for the use of spectrum. In Europe, the Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) has adapted to the growth of the sector by creating new regulations – at a European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications (CEPT) level and globally within the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) framework.

In November, CEPT hosted a workshop to address the technical and regulatory challenges raised by new satellite technologies and applications.

This was one of the first major in-person workshops to be hosted since the pandemic. Some 150 people converged on a hotel in Copenhagen in Denmark, while the event was also streamed online, with 200 people registering remotely.

What was particularly relevant about this workshop was the diverse range of views that were heard – from regulators, standards organisations and industry alike. Both well- established satellite operators and start-ups were represented.

Presentations were received from both long-established satellite operators, as well as more recent entrants to the market included from the start-up sapce. Over the course of a day and a half, and nine sessions, the presentations were insightful, and the debate that followed was robust.

The changing face of satellite technology

There are three main types of earth orbiting satellites. Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO) satellites move on a path that is parallel to earth and appear stationary in the sky, at an altitude of around 36,000 km. Medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites orbit the earth at a lower altitude, from around 5,000 km to 12,000 km. Meanwhile, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites occupy the range below around 2,000 km.

Many of the new satellite IoT systems that are being planned for the market are based on smaller LEO satellites. “Megaconstellations” of large numbers of LEO satellites are either under development or already providing service.

The workshop heard of how satellites are being used to enhance people’s lives around world – whether that is providing broadband in rural areas or assisting emergency services in their work. In addition, there is increasing demand for ubiquitous connectivity on the move, for which ‘earth stations in motion (ESIM)’ on-board aircraft, ships and land vehicles play an important role.

As one contributor put it, “space is the future for communications on Earth”.

Spectrum regulation

The workshop explored whether the current ECC frameworks are suitable to meet the challenges of the satellite sector.

First generation large constellations, which are in use, use frequencies in the Ku- (10.7- 14.5 GHz) and Ka-bands (17.3-30 GHz), which provide satellite connectivity. Future generation large constellations plan to use the Q/V-bands (37.5-52.4 GHz).

Spectrum sharing is an important component of the satellite regulations. Speakers called for conditions that “accurately reflect planned operations of non-geostationary orbital (NGSO) systems”.

The workshop heard that, while there is need for improvement, CEPT is doing lots of things right when it comes to regulation, and the ECC framework is also influential for other regions outside CEPT. However there were some frustrations expressed over the length of time it takes for regulations to be implemented on a national basis, as well as the availability of up-to-date information on this implementation status.

The workshop heard that it “takes about two years of rigorous work to produce the ECC Decisions and ECC Reports” and “a robust framework is needed to ensure that the satellite systems do not cause harmful interference to other services”.

It was argued that ITU Radio Regulations and ITU-R Recommendations should be updated to reflect the changing technology – one contributor pointed out that some regulations are based on work from 1997 to 2003.

The growth in the number of satellites will mean that spectrum is often shared, and the workshop heard that it is important that rules must be based on “realistic scenarios” and respecting ECC decisions and World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) outcomes.

The increasing convergence of satellite and mobile technologies was noted by several contributors. In the past these two had often been rivals for the same spectrum, but satellite integration is now seen as increasingly important for future generations of mobile technology including 6G.

The use of satellites to provide connectivity in existing terrestrial spectrum bands was also discussed, including the possibility of direct connections to existing mobile phones, and the possibility of hybrid networks for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. These systems could provide significant extension of coverage to remote areas, but they also raise a series of regulatory questions.

Contributors called for governments to provide assurances of stability and spectrum availability.

“ITU Radio Regulations are necessary to avoid harmful interference between NGSO and GSO systems”, one said.

On the other hand, there were also views that regulations need to be sufficiently flexible to allow for experimentation and innovation.

While some work has been done on harmonising standards for satellite earth station terminals, contributors called for greater harmonised satellite spectrum. This is essential, they said, for undisrupted use of service. For example, the on-the-move vehicle driver travelling across Europe will benefit from harmonised satellite spectrum.

ESIM play an important role in operating NGSO systems, as they serve moving platforms such as aircraft. One contributor said that allowing wider access to spectrum for NGSO ESIM in the Ka-band will provide a “much required harmonised international framework” and will protect existing areas.

Beyond spectrum

Spectrum isn’t the only issue facing operators in space. The workshop heard that more than 25,000 objects, larger than 10 cm in size, are flying around space. Collisions can lead to more orbital debris. Likewise, the more satellites in space, the more obstacles which can cause disruption for astronomers researching it.

The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-2022) adopted a resolution to address the issue of “enabling sustainable, efficient, and equitable use of the orbital and frequency resources”.

The challenge for regulators when it comes to dealing with requests for market access is to strike a balance around accommodating new satellite solutions while solving sustainability issues.

Bringing regulation to the World

With the WRC-23 fast approaching, it was unsurprising that it featured prominently at the CEPT workshop.

Satellites will be a major topic for discussion at WRC-23 – with huge debate expected and “controversial decisions” at the conference. The current satellite-related agenda items have largely originated from the CEPT proposals.

At present, CEPT is in the process of developing positions for the conference. European Common Proposals for WRC-23 will begin to be approved in May. The workshop heard that CEPT’s position is to protect the existing satellite usage, to strengthen existing spectrum and to allocate new spectrum for satellites.

As the workshop ended, it was agreed that while a lot of work has been done around regulation, there is still more to do if the satellite sector is to flourish.