Over the last few decades, the use of telecommunication satellites have increased their applications became part of day-to-day living. As the number of satellites in space increase, spacing has become critical for countries to receive the most from their space assets. Over the decades, operators of space assets have turned to constellations that at times are in the thousands in the number of satellites. However, constellations of this size have brought about the risk of collisions and the creation of debris. Starting as a measure for spectrum management, the international community agreed to regulate the assignment of slots in the geostationary earth orbit (GEO) belt through the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU is mandated to allocate spectrum and register frequency assignments, orbital positions and other parameters of satellites. The ITU radio regulations comprise an international treaty establishing the framework for the utilization of radio frequencies and satellite orbits among its ITU member countries. The organization registers orbital slots to administrations who apply for them on behalf of satellite operators. Once assigned, the orbital slot associated with frequencies must be used for a given category of ITU service within a given timeframe. Orbital slotting is allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. The slotting is free and is owned for the duration of a satellite’s lifetime, typically 15 years. Usually, the operators keep refiling for the slot and replace old satellites with new ones and therefore, they tend to keep the orbital slot indefinitely.
Congestion of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit Spectrum
The most developed countries of the world from North America, Europe and Asia have launched several thousands of objects that have congested the geostationary orbit and left few or no slots for new entrants into the market. Only a few opportunities remain for satellite operators to develop new positions or make better use of existing slots. According to industry experts, making better use of existing slots is a multi-faceted debate with no easy answer as to what can be done to create additional room for more satellites While there are arguments that more can be done to free up slots and develop existing locations more effectively, there is a unanimous agreement that there are no strong orbital slots that are unused or not already spoken for, as a majority have been allocated to satellites already under construction and expected to launch in the near future. According to the Independent UK, as of 2019, there were 1800 available spaces in the geostationary orbit, which is located approximately 35,000 km above earth’s equator. Some regions are more heavily utilized than others, particularly in the C-band and Ku-band frequencies. However, growth opportunities are reported to exist in regions such as Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia-Pacific.
Maximizing the efficiency of orbital slots
To maximize the efficiency at each orbital slot, satellite operators are deploying high-powered satellites with greater throughput and using more advanced coding schemes. Thanks to advances in satellite technology, satellites can now be operated more closely together, at two degrees, unlike in the 60s and 70s where they needed separation of about three degrees to avoid interference concerns. According to Space Legal Issues, at three degrees spacing, the geosynchronous plan would limit the number of satellites in a particular frequency band to 120 slots. However, at two degrees spacing, the limit has expanded to 180 satellites per orbital slot. It has also been cited that advances in ground station technology can help expand the utilization of the spectrum. In this regard, operators are expected to take up measures that allow them to operate efficiently in the naturally limited number of orbital slots available.
Scrutiny of the orbital slots filing mechanism and the aftermath
In spite of the advances in space technology that could allow operators to maximize the use of a given orbital space, the filing mechanism for orbital slots is continuously being scrutinized in recent years. This is because more countries are pushing the ITU to crackdown on the use of orbitals slots or spacecraft that most likely will not be manufactured or launched but are used to hold the slot for a given country. As such, the congestion for the limited resource is causing considerable complication to the coordination procedure. According to the ITU, paper filing is a growing phenomenon that the organization is seeking to discourage. One of the measures that the union has taken is the reduction of the time period which a satellite must be placed in orbit, from nine to seven years. According to ITU, operators have five years to bring a satellite into use, with a maximum two-year extension before the allocated slot expires.
With the move to reduce the time period within which an orbital slot must be used, the most affected nations have been those in Africa, yet according to reports, countries in Africa are lifeline users of spectrum and satellite resources, perhaps more than developing countries in other parts of the world. This is because most of the continent’s international traffic is channelled through satellites to the rest of the world, making the development of satellite policy and governance a priority concern to the continent. The ‘first come first served’ policy is proving inadequate given that the most of the countries have not developed capacities in space programs that would typically allow them to begin the 4-5 year process of specifying, ordering, launching, and insuring satellites. Furthermore, serving Africa often requires transmission in C-band as the only band that can withstand the heavy climatic rainfall of the African region. The C-band satellites require the use of larger dishes which are difficult to install and more expensive to acquire and transport. The major challenge for economically poor countries such as those in Africa is that once an orbital slot is issued and not used within the specified period, the ITU may not reissue another slot, forcing the country to explore leasing options.
Degradation of Africa’s Orbital slots
In mid-February 2020, 31 African countries launched a bid to protect their orbital slots for further deployment of satellites for uses that spur economic development. The African Telecommunications Union (ATU), in collaboration with the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), and ITU Radiocommunications sector rallied the countries to a workshop that allowed them to share new resources and generate corresponding satellite notices to the ITU. As reported by Taarifa Rwanda, the convention would allow the countries a chance to utilize new usable resources to launch satellite systems for satellite broadcasting services. In the year 2000, each African country was allocated an equal share of the orbital slots but more than half of the continent did not follow on their allocated satellite resource now rendered obsolete due to interference from other satellite networks and natural degradation. Satellite notices are a legal way of requesting the ITU to process and formalize any change to the satellite resource plans. The workshop was part of the implementation of one of the decisions of the World Radio- Communication Conference (WRC) held in 2019 in Egypt, where ATU made a request to have a special window for generating satellite notices.
In the 2019 conference, ATU called for:
- Agenda 1.4: A review of Annex 7 to Appendix 30 aimed at streamlining the satellite orbital resource plan for satellite broadcasting to identify additional resources, in terms of both the orbital locations and frequencies, that could be available for countries whose orbital resources in the said plan can no longer be used, due to degradation of the operating environment, since the plan was established in 1977. As most African countries are affected, their planned resources in the original plan can no longer be used, the agenda item promised the much-needed relief for African countries to acquire new and usable satellite orbital resources for satellite broadcasting.
- Improvements to satellite regulations so as to reflect and cater for the special needs of African and other developing countries in terms of both the allocation principles of these resources, as well as attendant regulatory and administrative procedures. The scale of the utilization of satellite resources is skewed against developing countries. Therefore, the issues which the agenda aimed to improve included a special light-weight regime for satellite systems with short-duration missions.
In response to Agenda 1.4, the 31 countries adopted the ITU principles of sharing new resources. The principles were based on a number of elements including; Orbital Separation, geographical isolation, polarization discrimination, and reduced frequency overlap or a combination thereof.
In the workshop, Mr Kavouss Aresteh, an Iranian Communications specialist, provided the background of WRC-19 Agenda Item 1.4, the key points of its outcomes as contained in Resolution 559 (WRC-19) and his recommendations on what African countries ought to do to fully exploit the opportunity being presented by the resolution as well as ensure preservation and protection of the new identified resources. He stated that during the issue of slots in 2000, every country’s European Physiology Module (EPM) was positive. However, the EPMs had degraded beyond the -10dB threshold over time mainly due to affected countries not reacting to the ITU correspondences, in particular, the BR International Frequency Information Circular. He recognized that there are some shortcomings in Resolution 559 (WRC-19) as it relates to the processing of the submissions made under the resolution with those currently undergoing processing at the ITU. In his address, he stressed on the need for African countries to be active in protecting the regained resources thereafter by among other things, carrying out a serious examination of the BR IFIC’s and to comment whenever necessary with a view to protecting their satellite resources. He emphasized that failing to do so is likely to result in degradation of the new resources as the case has been with the current resources.
Eight principles were adopted at the workshop in regard to Agenda 1.4, as proposed by the ITU and would follow the following timeframes. Only the 31 African countries that were affected were invited to make their respective country submissions, via the prescribed manner (e-Submission), between the set period of 23rd March 2020 to 21st May 2020 based on the agreed matrix of sharing the new resources. It was necessary that countries use the provided sharing matrix otherwise, the sharing of the new resources would not be optimized for all. The allocations of orbital positions/channels were done based on the assumption that all 31 affected African wished to apply the special procedure as contained Resolution 559 (WRC-19). Due to high rain attenuation and/or the low EPM values, certain affected African countries were advised to search for other orbital positions by applying the normal Article 4 procedure.
|1||Find a new orbital position and channels||before 22 May 2020|
|2||Submit the request to the Bureau||from 22 March 2020 to 21 May 2020|
|3||Coordinate with affected and affecting administrations||As soon as possible but before 22 May 2028|
|4||Protect the submissions||After 21 May 2020|
|5||Make appropriate proposals at future WRCs||WRC-23, WRC-27, WRC-31|
|6||Submit Part B to the Bureau||before 22 May 2028|
|7||Submit a request to the next WRC to replace the current Plan assignments with the new ones.||The WRC after the entrance in the List|
With the revised special-circumstance notices, which a few experts acknowledge is a rare opportunity, communications authorities are hopeful for the use of the geostationary orbits in reference to Africa’s economic development.
Call for the reformation of ITU’s policies
While Africa might be the most affected, the telecommunications market is also experiencing challenges given the overcrowding restrictions in the geostationary orbit. A few European companies have tried to launch satellites into the medium-earth-orbit but the uptake by other players has not been successful given the high levels of radiation and the speed of the satellite in this orbit. The limitation of slots has left an increasingly small number of telecommunications operators in the market, and a growing incessancy for the complete overhaul of the 1975 United Nations Outer Space regulatory framework.
In its review of the African Space Program, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recommends the restructuring of ITU’s operating policies. To start, WMO recommends the reconsideration of the ‘first come first served’ principle used in the allocation of the scarce and finite space resources. WMO contends that those who are poor today and without technological power will not be so forever. Hence, principles of equity and conservation should prevail to ensure access by humankind in the present and future generations. In seeking solutions to the satellite congestion issues and increasing cost recovery in processing fees, WMO advises that care should be taken to ensure new barriers for excluding the developing world are not created. The organization also recommends the use of an affirmative asymmetric approach where defined transition periods are considered so that the statement of transforming the digital divide does not become just another slogan. WMO recommends that African countries file for orbital slots as a block as they stand a better chance of securing spectrum resources.
The impression is seconded by Dr Suki Sule, a teaching associate at the department of satellite applications at the University of Strathclyde. He argues, “African countries need to collaborate to utilize these slots to make up for the financial challenges. Regional or continental constellations should be explored vigorously. It might also be useful to increase the advocacy on the benefits of space technologies so that public funding bodies such as the African Development Bank (AfDB), and wealthy African entrepreneurs can be convinced to invest in satellite communications. On the first-come-first-served matter, there are efforts at reserving slots for countries with less developed space capabilities. However, there is a limit as these slots are market-driven and represent the largest share of the space market by far. This is expedient as LEO mega-constellations such as Starlink will potentially disrupt the African market. Africa needs to acquire a healthy share of the satcoms market, and the key might be the buy-in by key political actors and heavyweight investors.”
Njeri graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Finance, from the University of Nairobi and is a CFA Level II Candidate. Currently an analyst at Space in Africa, her experience spans across Project Finance, and the analysis of Venture Capital & Private Equity Ecosystems in sub-Sahara Africa, with a particular interest in Sustainable Sciences.