The future of the ITU WRC cycle: Keeping pace with technological progress

The future of the ITU WRC cycle: Keeping pace with technological progress

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) cycle plays a key role in guaranteeing equitable access to spectrum, managing radio spectrum allocations, and ensuring efficient use of radio frequencies. However, as technology advances at an unprecedented pace, concerns have arisen about the WRC cycle’s ability to keep up with these advancements.

To address these concerns, the ITU organised the ‘Satellite Workshop: ITU in Service of Space’[1] in June 2023. This article explores some of the insights shared during the workshop, focusing on the challenges faced by the ITU and proposing potential strategies to address these challenges. Additionally, it will provide commentary on the outcomes of WRC-23, highlighting some of the difficulties that arose during the conference.

Keeping pace with the dynamic space industry

The space industry has a growing appetite for spectrum resources This is highlighted by the rise of mega-constellations, such as SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, as well as the proliferation of small satellites and even geostationary satellite innovations, like on-board processing. This has led to calls for greater frequency bandwidths and higher data rates.

However, this increasing demand cannot readily be met, leading some actors to exploit loopholes within the Radio Regulations. For instance, non-geostationary (NGSO) satellites have operated for decades without specified orbital tolerances, but tighter regulation of this was addressed at WRC-23 under Agenda Item 7 Topic A, with a new resolution including approved tolerances on apogee/perigee and inclination parameters. This applies to frequency assignments for NGSO systems, orbital planes having an orbital eccentricity less than 0.5, and an apogee altitude of less than 15,000 km notified as part of an NGSO FSS, BSS, or MSS system subject to Resolution 35.

The increasing utilisation of Article No. 4.4 (a clause permitting limited operation of any radio station without completing the necessary procedures) for commercial applications has caused many administrations to openly consider constraints on such operations. Public declarations that bands allocated to terrestrial mobile services will be used to provide Direct-to-Handset services via satellite, in contravention of the Radio Regulations, challenge the whole regulatory structure. This is evidenced by the new Agenda Item 1.5 for WRC-27, which will deal with regulatory measures to stop unauthorised operations of NGSO satellite orbit earth stations for FSS and MSS systems. This trend poses challenges to the effectiveness of existing regulatory frameworks and emphasises the need for timely evolution of the Radio Regulations to keep up with technological innovation.

Enhancing collaboration among stakeholders

The workshop highlighted the importance of engaging satellite operators, regulatory bodies, industry associations, and other relevant entities in the decision-making process. However, it is important to note that the process consisted mainly of sequential presentations from individual stakeholders, with limited time for questions. This format restricted meaningful discussions and interactions among interested parties. Nonetheless, the workshop most likely initiated offline discussions, which is a common approach at the ITU. It is essential to recognise the significance of enhanced collaboration among stakeholders in ensuring the effective functioning of the ITU WRC cycle. Therefore, efforts should be made to promote more interactive and collaborative platforms.

Areas of strategic focus

To improve its functioning, the ITU should focus on several key areas. Firstly, innovation is now closely linked to flexibility. This means that the future of the ITU WRC cycle lies in embracing flexibility in spectrum management. This includes exploring new approaches, such as dynamic spectrum access and spectrum sharing. By promoting flexible regulatory frameworks and encouraging experimentation, the ITU can unlock the full potential of spectrum resources and tailor them to the diverse needs of space services.

As mentioned above, many NGSO satellite systems have been deployed or planned by various companies and organisations. Recommendation S.1503, the only crucial tool for modelling NGSO systems, is proving limited for the increasingly complex landscape of real-world satellite constellations and their evolving nature. Its limitations, like the lack of multi-NGSO system interference and not including critical parameters, such as antenna patterns and pointing errors, lead to incomplete assessments and potentially underutilised spectrum.

The recommendation was initially released in 2005 and has been updated twice, in 2013 and 2018. The ongoing revisions offer an opportunity to address these shortcomings. Some of the technical aspects under discussion include satellite selection, duty cycle, dynamic transmission schemes, non-worst-case geometries, and optimised run-time. Stakeholders must balance operators’ desire for innovation with the need for a robust, consolidated recommendation that maximises spectrum utilisation and ensures compliance with Radio Regulations.

It is important to address the concerns raised about Recommendation S.1503 and consider alternative approaches to updating the recommendation, such as more regular updates or allowing the implementation of new ideas for testing before seeking consensus from member states. Additionally, given the complexity of space services and the growing number of satellite systems, the ITU should prioritise the development and deployment of robust spectrum monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. This proactive approach will detect and mitigate instances of harmful interference, ensuring fair spectrum access and protecting the integrity of spectrum allocations.

Moreover, international cooperation and spectrum harmonisation are important for global connectivity and efficient spectrum utilisation. The ITU WRC cycle should continue to promote harmonisation efforts, encourage the exchange of best practices, and facilitate coordination among countries and regions. This will minimise interference, enhance interoperability, and streamline regulatory processes for space services.

Addressing regulatory challenges

The lack of regulation in certain areas has allowed some actors to take advantage of the current system for their own benefit, especially NGSO constellation operators, where the regulation is less mature than the regulation for geostationary (GSO) systems, which have been in use for many years. For example, before the milestone process was implemented, NGSO operators were able to bring mega-constellations into use with a single satellite.

It should be noted that this milestone process only applies to certain frequency bands. Before WRC-23, there were no tolerances with regard to orbit maintenance. The absence of regulation in NGSO operations has raised concerns about interference with existing satellite systems and terrestrial networks. For instance, the uncontrolled deployment of NGSO satellites could lead to increased signal interference.

Another important aspect that should be addressed is the lack of specific regulations related to space debris mitigation for NGSO constellations. The rapid growth of these constellations, without adequate measures in place to deorbit non-functioning satellites or manage end-of-life disposal, poses a significant risk to the overall space environment.

Implementing new strategies or introducing changes within the consensus-based framework of the ITU can be complex due to the diverse interests and priorities of stakeholders. Balancing the need for regulatory flexibility with the imperative to address emerging issues and ensure fair spectrum allocation requires careful navigation and innovative approaches.

Encouraging constructive dialogue, promoting information sharing, and facilitating agreements that serve the interests of all stakeholders are essential for the ITU to keep pace with technological advancements and strengthen its functioning. This will keep the ITU at the forefront of technological advancements in the dynamic space industry.

WRC-23 outcome

WRC-23 concluded on 15 December 2023. While the conference achieved significant progress in addressing emerging technologies and challenges, it also left some delegations expressing concerns about the lack of consensus on certain key agenda items. Some of the most contentious issues were the proposal to revisit the limits for NGSO satellite systems in Article 22 of the Radio Regulations and the bands proposal for new IMT allocation.

In the case of the revision of Article 22, the debate reveals a large disagreement between stakeholders. While proponents for immediate revisions highlighted the rapid evolution of NGSO technology and the need for regulations to keep pace, many opposing administrations prioritised their existing investments in GSO satellite systems. This suggests that, for some, the perceived profitability and stability of GSO technology outweighed the potential benefits of accommodating newer, more dynamic NGSO systems.

However, this dynamic is likely to evolve as NGSO constellations continue their deployment and demonstrate their operational capabilities. As they enter the global telecommunications landscape, their influence on spectrum regulations and broader WRC decision-making processes will undoubtedly grow. This shift could lead to a different outcome on NGSO limits at future conferences, with regulators potentially more receptive to adapting regulations.

Despite the compromise reached, technical EPFD studies can advance without regulatory consequences. We have already witnessed a divergence of views where on one side the text means regulatory proposals for updating EPFD limits cannot be put up for debate until the next WRC. On the other, the results of studies and proposals for modification can be presented to the next WRC.

The lack of consensus on these issues has raised concerns about the decision-making process at the WRC, as the final decisions were taken by the heads of regional groups and not addressed at the plenary level. Some delegations argued that this undermined the principle of consensus-based decision-making that is at the heart of the WRC process, which was reflected as a note in the minutes of the chairman’s report. The conference’s outcome will undoubtedly have implications for the future of global radiocommunications and its structure. It will be closely monitored by all stakeholders in the sector.

Rethinking the regulatory model

The current WRC-centric regulatory model faces significant challenges in keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change. Rather than only focusing on incremental improvements, it is time to seriously consider more radical proposals to transform governance structures and decision-making processes.

Some ideas worth exploring include shifting away from the highly centralised WRC model towards a more decentralised structure that empowers regional bodies. The ITU could also establish expert advisory panels, conduct scenario planning, and pilot innovation incubators to implement new technologies. By embracing principles like open-source collaboration, dynamic governance, and transparent data sharing, the new model could feature greater flexibility, foresight, involvement of stakeholders, and overall agility to adequately regulate emerging technologies into the future.

Fundamental reform is needed to reinvent the ITU for the digital age. The body is at a crossroads where regulatory changes need to be adopted, similar to what happened in 1971 when a regulatory space framework was created for the emerging satellite industry. The ITU must respond to the needs of the industry in a timely way if it is to remain relevant for the next 50 years.

[1] Workshop “ITU in Service of Space”

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