The Implications of WRC-19 for the Satellite Industry

By Nicholas Puschman


The ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) will be taking place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt from 28 October to 22 November 2019. The outcomes of WRC-19 are likely to be significant in determining the future direction of the satellite industry. As in previous conferences, one of the key challenges will be defending existing satellite spectrum and securing additional necessary spectrum to meet the needs of future services. We consider below some of the key agenda items that are of particular relevance to the satellite industry.


One of the central objectives of the ITU, as provided in Article 44 of the ITU Constitution, is to ensure that radio frequencies and any associated orbits are used rationally, efficiently and economically and in conformity with the ITU Radio Regulations. The WRC, held every three to four years (the last conference being WRC-15), seeks to meet this objective by bringing together regulators from around the world to debate, review and make any necessary revisions to the ITU Radio Regulations, the treaty underpinning the international regulatory framework for the use of radiofrequency spectrum and satellite orbits (geostationary and non-geostationary orbit satellites). More than 3,500 participants are expected to attend WRC-19 including delegates from the 193 ITU Member States and representatives from industry and other international organisations.


The agenda for WRC-19 contains over 30 items ranging from the allocation of spectrum for wireless broadband connectivity, maritime, radio astronomy, aeronautical, transport, navigation to satellite services. While many of these agenda items will be relevant for different players operating across the satellite industry, we consider the following as being of particular interest:
  • Earth Stations in Motion (ESIM) (agenda item 1.5)
  • Allocation of additional spectrum (agenda item 1.13)
  • Satellite coordination procedures and processes (agenda item 7)
  • Future WRC agenda items (agenda item 10)

Earth Stations in Motion (ESIM) (agenda item 1.5)

The frequency bands for the purposes of ESIM communicating with GEO satellites in the fixed satellite service were set at WRC-15. This agenda item considers widening the bands that can be used in respect of ESIMs to include the 18 GHz and 28 GHz bands. The fact that this item remains on the WRC agenda reflects the advances in technology and the growing demand for and uptake of satellite-based connectivity systems to moving platforms on land as well as aircraft and ships. A clear example of this growth is in satellite-based systems enabling in-flight connectivity (IFC). The IFC market has seen increased growth in the past five years and this is set to continue as more airlines deploy IFC solutions to passengers. For instance, the satellite and space market research firm, Northern Sky Research, has estimated that the IFC market is likely to generate $37 billion by the end of 2027.

Agenda item 1.5 will focus on the need to develop the international regulatory framework as it relates to the use of spectrum for ESIMs so as to enable global satellite services while at the same time protecting or not imposing undue restraints on other planned services, e.g. terrestrial services.

Allocation of additional spectrum (agenda item 1.13)

Agenda item 1.13 considers additional spectrum allocation for terrestrial mobile services. As some of the spectrum blocks which could be allocated to mobile services are currently used for satellite services, the outcomes of this agenda item will be of interest to the satellite industry. The consequences will be particularly significant this year as there is demand for new spectrum allocations for terrestrial mobile services for the deployment of 5G, including the harmonisation of frequency bands for future 5G services above 24 GHz. As the GSMA noted in an open letter, WRC-19 is a critical step which “will determine whether – and when – the promise of 5G will be fully realised.”

It will be important for regulators to strive for a balance between the needs of incumbent and new mobile operators and satellite operators under this agenda item, especially in the context of 5G.

Satellite coordination procedures and processes (agenda item 7)

A number of issues have been identified for discussion under this agenda item, which is usually reserved for debate on improvements needed to satellite filing procedures. One of the main issues, which relates to NGSO systems such as mega-constellations, is in relation to the regulatory provisions to be introduced for the bringing into use of these systems. Such provisions include the need to specify a minimum period of operation and introducing a NGSO-specific milestone approach to monitor the deployment of NGSO systems such as large constellations. Delegates will debate the specifics of what type of NGSO systems should be subject to these milestones as well as the transitional measures for NGSO systems that have already been brought into use before WRC-19. This agenda item will likely be of particular interest to the operators of large satellite constellations that have already begun to be launched and deployed or whose launch is imminent.

Another subject to be discussed under agenda item 7 relates to the establishment of a simplified regulatory framework for NGSO systems with “short-duration” missions. The outcome of this item will have implications, in particular, for the operators of small satellites that are in orbit for three years or less. Small satellites are generally seen as examples of innovative space technology and encouraged at a national level. However the presence of this agenda item, as a point for international discussion, comes in response to certain short duration mission satellites having been launched without the correct ITU procedures being complied with and giving rise to a risk of interference. Other agenda items, such as agenda item 1.7, will deal with other aspects of short duration satellite missions such as the spectrum requirements for telemetry, tracking and command in the operation of these NGSO satellites.

Future WRC agenda items (agenda item 10)

Agenda item 10 is a standing agenda item to prepare the provisional agendas for future WRCs, the next one after this year being WRC-2023. While many of the other agenda items, including those we have considered above, will no doubt lead to enough discussion to occupy the four weeks of this conference, the scarcity of spectrum and the continued growing demand mean that this agenda item could very well lead to much discussion and debate, even at the eleventh hour.