This year’s theme of World Space Week, “Space Unites the World,” resounds with the never-ending work carried out by the entire ITU membership since the 1960s to ensure that adequate radio frequencies are available for space activities.
Only six years after the historical first satellite launch of Sputnik in 1957, ITU organized the Extraordinary Administrative Radio Conference to allocate frequency bands for space radiocommunication purposes in Geneva from 7 October to 8 November 1963. The Conference, which was attended by more than 400 delegates from 70 ITU Member States, allocated for the first time radio frequencies for outer space activities, totaling about 6 GHz for the various kinds of space services and for radio astronomy, 2.8 GHz of which were for communication satellites. After the Conference, about 15 per cent of the Table of Frequency Allocations was available for outer space.
This Conference initiated a continuing flow of global regulations and standards on the use of radio frequencies in relation with outer space. Several major steps were taken over the course of the following years:
In addition to allocating frequencies for space applications, the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the associated satellite orbits (both geostationary and non-geostationary), contain a set of detailed technical provisions and regulatory procedures to ensure the rational, equitable, efficient and economic use of spectrum/orbit resources.
“To ensure that each Member State can benefit from, and get access to, spectrum/orbit resources, a part of them has been set aside and allocated to each individual country for using them when the country decides to embark on a satellite project: these procedures are known as Space Plans.”
These regulations are based on a cooperative system, whereby ITU Member States provide the characteristics of the intended use of orbit/spectrum resources, the ITU examines their compliance with the Radio Regulations and publishes them so that they can be coordinated with other ITU Member States who have satellite projects that could be affected. Finally, once the above procedures are completed, satellite frequencies are entered into the Master International Frequency Register (MIFR), where they enjoy the legal rights (mainly of operating free from harmful interference) obtained in conformity with the Radio Regulations.
These Regulations, adopted in the 1960s, have undergone several refinements since then, but their main principles proved to be extremely perennial.
In addition, to ensure that each Member State can benefit from, and get access to, spectrum/orbit resources, a part of the Regulations has been set aside and allocated to each individual country for using them when the country decides to embark on a satellite project. These procedures are known as Space Plans.
In order to ensure that adequate radio-frequency resources are available to new space applications and that procedures to get access to spectrum/orbit resources remain fit for the evolving space operations concepts, the Radio Regulations are regularly updated by World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC).
Such Conferences take place every four years and work on the basis of an agenda elaborated by the previous WRC. The various agenda items trigger three years of technical and regulatory studies to support the work of WRC by providing options to address the agenda items.
These studies are performed within the ITU-R Study Groups. Of particular relevance for the space sector are Study Group 4, which deals with Satellite Services, and Study Group 7, which addresses Science Services.
The Study Groups not only conduct studies related to WRC agendas but also elaborate a number of Recommendations, Reports and Handbooks (all of which are publicly and freely available) that contain global up-to-date technical standards related to satellite system equipment or best practices about spectrum/orbit resource management.
The next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt from 28 October to 22 November 2019. For more information, visit the WRC-19 website.
As with every WRC, the WRC-19 agenda contains several items relating to satellite activities, both for scientific or communications purposes:
It is also worth mentioning that WRC-19 will also consider the status of suborbital flights in relation with radio-frequency usage (WRC-19 agenda item 9.1.4): should they be considered more like aeronautical systems or space systems?
Finally, several other agenda items may have an impact on existing satellite uses because of the need of other radio systems to get access to additional spectrum.