Earth Stations have evolved from large, fixed structures to small satellite antennas mounted on mobile platforms that connect with satellites to provide connectivity and Internet access on the move. This solution is what we now commonly refer to as Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs).
The technological progress in ESIM technology greatly helps with facilitating seamless connectivity and solutions. Based on the platform they are located on, ESIMs can be divided according to the three types of vehicles on which they are used: aircraft (aeronautical ESIM or AES), ships (maritime ESIM or ESV), and land vehicles (land ESIM). However, while ESIMs have gained considerable attention, the regulatory frameworks at regional and domestic levels continue to pose barriers to the widespread adoption of the applications they power.
ESIM regulatory framework
The regulatory framework governing ESIMs is multifaceted, covering spectrum allocation, licensing, and technical standards. More specifically, it needs to consider the frequency bands ESIMs use, the type of satellite systems connected, and the specific platforms or means of transportation where ESIMs are installed. These regulations are instrumental in promoting responsible and interference-free ESIM operations, while also addressing concerns related to privacy and security. Responsibility for establishing a harmonised and comprehensive regulatory framework on ESIMs lies jointly with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), regional telecommunications organisations, and national telecommunications authorities. These entities collaborate to ensure that ESIMs operate seamlessly and securely within the global landscape.
Presently, a notable lack of harmonisation exists in ESIM regulations – both at the international and regional levels. At the ITU level, the main Recommendations and Resolutions related to ESIMs are:
- Resolutions 158 and Resolution 169 for ESIMs communicating with geostationary (GSO) space stations in the Ka band, 17.7-19.7 GHz (space-to-Earth), 27.5-29.5 GHz (Earth-to-space).
- International footnote 5.504A states that in the Ku band (14.0-14.5 GHz), aircraft earth stations in the secondary aeronautical mobile-satellite service may communicate with space stations in Fixed Satellite Services (FSS).
These recommendations only partially address the full scope of ESIM operations conducted globally. For example, they have yet to encompass ESIMs connecting with non-geostationary (NGSO) space stations.
It is also crucial to note that ITU Recommendations and Resolutions are not compulsory for regional and national authorities to implement. Each country makes its own decisions about whether to adopt ITU Recommendations, keeping in mind the need for global harmonisation and standardisation. At the regional level, the European Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) has developed the largest number of harmonisation decisions on the exemption from licensing and free circulation for the use of the three types of ESIM (which are referred to under several names within those decisions). While other regional bodies have also addressed the issues at some point, they do not have such standardised recommendations to be easily adopted by their members.
Upcoming WRC-23 and prospective changes
Given the pressing need for a comprehensive regulatory framework on ESIMs, WRC-19 set two Future Agenda Items (AI 1.15 and AI 1.16) for WRC-23:
- AI 1.15 – To harmonise the use of the frequency band 12.75-13.25 GHz (Earth-to-space) by earth stations on aircraft and vessels communicating with geostationary space stations in the fixed-satellite service globally, in accordance with Resolution 172 (WRC-19).
- AI 1.16 – To study and develop the technical, operational, and regulatory measures, as appropriate, to facilitate the use of the frequency bands 17.7-18.6 GHz, 18.8-19.3 GHz and 19.7-20.2 GHz (space-to-Earth) and 27.5-29.1 GHz and 29.5-30 GHz (Earth-to-space) by non-GSO FSS ESIM, while ensuring due protection of existing services in those frequency bands, in accordance with Resolution 173 (WRC-19).
These two agenda items aim to harmonise the use of aero ESIM and maritime ESIM in the planned Ku band and expand the use of ESIM to connect with NGSO space stations in the Ka band. This has the potential to unlock additional spectrum resources for ESIM operations.
As new space technologies, such as High Throughput Satellite (HTS), continue to advance, the utilisation of higher frequency bands for ESIMs becomes increasingly relevant. These higher frequency bands offer enhanced precision, expanded data capacity, and the promise of significantly improved user connectivity experiences. Consequently, a growing number of satellite operators and national telecommunication authorities are expressing an interest in using ESIMs within these bands.
In response, WRC-23 is proposing to establish a Future Agenda Item for WRC-27 to study the use of aero ESIMs and maritime ESIMs in the Q/V band, 37.5-39.5 GHz (space-to-Earth), 40.5-42.5 GHz (space-to-Earth), 47.2-50.2 GHz (Earth-to-space), and 50.4-51.4 GHz (Earth-to-space), through Resolution 176.
The need to stay connected at all times, as well as other advancements in providing ubiquitous connectivity, are part of the global boom in ESIM-powered services, fostering ever-increasing technical innovation. As connectivity evolves into a multi-orbit and hybrid solution, a harmonised regulatory framework that removes unnecessary regulatory barriers is required. Furthermore, harmonisation is at the heart of the solutions to accommodate the growing demands for additional spectrum resources for ESIMs. To delve deeper into this topic or stay informed about the latest developments on ESIMs at WRC-23, please contact Xiaoya Sun at email@example.com, Juliana Ramirez at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Carolina Daza at email@example.com from Access Partnership’s Market Access team.