Securing spectrum for Space 2.0
11 Mar 2020|

Every day, we’re surrounded by a sea of radiofrequency signals—from our smartphones, GPS, vehicle proximity sensors, and TV and radio broadcasts. All of these systems use the radiofrequency spectrum, on an exclusive or shared basis.

Spectrum is critical national infrastructure like dams, roads, ports and the electricity network. It’s invisible, yet it’s embedded in our nation’s daily activities and thus core to our prosperity and growth. Spectrum is the unseen essential and fundamental input to the operation of many public-benefit and for-profit enterprises, but also to our national security and defence capabilities. Spectrum security must become a greater part of our national interest considerations.

The radiofrequency spectrum nominally spans 1 kHz to 300 GHz. It sits just below the optical spectrum, which includes infrared, visible light and ultraviolet. In Australia, the frequency range that’s allocated and managed by the domestic regulator is 8.3 kHz to 275 GHz.

Globally, spectrum is managed by the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency charged with facilitating international information and communications technologies. On the domestic front, the Australian Communications and Media Authority is the local regulator and, together with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, ensures that Australia complies with its international treaty-level obligations at the ITU.

Spectrum rules and regulations vary across countries and regions. Last year, more than 3,300 delegates from governments, academia and industry attended the ITU World Radiocommunications Conference 2019 in Egypt to work out the legal and technical framework that governs international use of the spectrum and satellite orbit allocation. Four years of policy and technical deliberations precede each conference. Is that too long a cycle to support the timelines for new-technology innovation, especially Space 2.0 endeavours?

Over the next four years, the ACMA will be focused on ensuring spectrum availability for future 5G services for Australia. Given the limited resources available for spectrum management, is there a new role for a non-profit trusted adviser organisation to provide enduring support to ACMA in the fast-moving Space 2.0 spectrum landscape?

Radiofrequency spectrum is a finite resource, and it is becoming more congested and contested. Regulators such as the ACMA, the US Federal Communications Commission and the ITU are increasingly placing tighter constraints on the allocation, use and sharing of spectrum. Competition is fierce, and Space 2.0 businesses can succeed or fail based on their access to secure, long-term spectrum rights, whether directly as a spectrum licensee or indirectly as a consumer of space-based data.

The ACMA navigates this tension by allocating spectrum based on a ‘maximum public benefit’ test. Every public and private enterprise using space-based data has spectrum as a key business risk and opportunity—whether they know it or not.

Space-based systems require assured access not only to orbits but also to spectrum for all parts of their functioning—from satellites to essential ground-station gateways, user terminals and intersatellite links. Spectrum underpins the global space economy, which some estimates forecast will grow from US$350 billion to US$1 trillion by 2040.

The ITU operates on a first-come, first-served basis for satellite coordination of earth orbits and frequencies. Satellite filings, where operators register their operations step by step with the ITU, establish a precedence in the satellite coordination queue. The Australian government needs to give strong consideration to national objectives for strategic satellite spectrum and orbit-location filing.

The satellite industry has been plagued by ‘paper satellite’ filings—notifications by member states to the ITU of satellite networks and constellations that they never intend to actually build. These filings block or slow other countries’ endeavours to access space and they can be traded much like other company capital assets. This legal conundrum clogs the regulatory process and is a costly waste of the limited resources available for spectrum management. Australia must, at a minimum, vigorously promote greater due diligence by all ITU member countries to avoid paper filings through their administrations.

Satellites have the unique benefit of ubiquitous global coverage. While there are no fences in space, satellite network operators are required to get permission from each country in which their operations seek to ‘land’ services or data. Is Australia’s legal framework for the space domain prepared for an increase in foreign satellite operations to and from Australian soil?

In recent years, space has re-emerged as desirable high ground for national and commercial interests alike. Spectrum battles are likely to become fiercer, with states and commercial parties staking and defending spectrum claims. There’s an emerging imperative for national-interest space-spectrum policy and objectives to be defined and pursued.

Global spectrum coordination is an important facet of developing global markets. In 2019, the ITU allocated over 17 GHz of globally harmonised spectrum to future 5G services. Some of that erodes the historical allocation to Space 1.0 geostationary satellite services. However, innovation is highest in the Space 2.0 low-earth-orbit satellites, and new services and business models are being developed as a result of the lower-cost and easier access to space created by companies such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Gilmour Space Technologies. New satellite technologies are pushing the envelope of space-based data services, including the internet-of-things, daily imagery of the whole planet, and detection of aircraft and ship traffic.

The ITU, ACMA and FCC reviews of Space 2.0 spectrum and licensing rules and regulations for satellites are welcome. Mega-constellations such as Elon Musk’s Starlink have enormous spectrum and orbital footprints. How might all users be assured of access in a congested orbit and spectrum domain? Sharing between satellite networks, and with other services, entails complex policy and technical compromise. Perhaps a more proactive sharing approach is required, based on actual transmitter characteristics measured by spectrum monitoring and with the application of artificial intelligence and cognitive radio, for the benefit of all spectrum users.

It may be time for higher levels of government to pay attention to the Space 2.0 spectrum, starting with a review to steer and coordinate policy on space spectrum and orbital access across national interests in the defence, civilian and commercial spheres.