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ITU World Radiocommunication Conference Opens In Istanbul

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference-2000 (WRC, pronounced ‘warc’) opens in Istanbul this week. Some 2,500 delegates from 150 countries are expected at the month-long international conference. Billions of dollars are riding on the decisions to be made at WRC-2000.

The World Radiocommunication Conference is the forum where countries decide on the shared use of the frequency spectrum to allow the deployment or growth of all types of radiocommunication services. Held every two to three years, it is a crucial event: at stake is the future of existing and new services alike, as the meeting painstakingly partitions the radio frequency spectrum for use by a growing number of radio-based applications, from mobile services and low earth orbit satellite systems to satellite broadcasting, aeronautical and maritime navigation, as well as amateur, radioastronomy, earth exploration and deep space research. The decisions of the WRC eventually form an international treaty binding all governments through the revision of the Radio Regulations, the arcane four-volume set of rules and regulations governing radio services worldwide, the result is intensive backroom lobbying to elicit support for their countries' proposals.

Some proposals to WRC-2000 concern the need for additional spectrum to facilitate expansion of existing services and to foster development of brand-new technologies and applications. Other proposals relate to regulatory procedures and the equitable use of spectrum. As some parts of the spectrum become intensively used, the conference is required to ensure that all users can share safely without harmful interference.
 

Intense private sector interest in the potential of satellite systems to deliver mobile voice and broadband data services has resulted in a large number of proposed new systems and services from non-geostationary satellites. With at least a dozen new projects in the pipeline which are scheduled to begin offering services - from mobile voice to fixed Internet access - over the coming 3 to 4 years, finding the spectrum to accommodate these systems was a focal point of the last two World Radiocommunication Conferences in 1995 and 1997. After lengthy debate and difficult negotiations at the time, it was decided to establish provisional power limits for the operation of these non-geostationary systems. WRC-97 also directed the ITU to undertake studies in the intervening period until the next WRC, to determine whether sharing was feasible.

This conference will examine the results of a tentative agreement reached at the December 1999 Conference Preparatory Meeting in Geneva, which is favorable to the concept of shared use of the bands in question by non-GSO and GSO systems of the Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) and the Broadcasting Satellite Service (BSS).

Broadcasting Satellite Service provides direct-to-home television broadcasting. Under the existing plan adopted by WRC-97 for Regions 1 and 3 (i.e. everywhere other than the Americas) which has roots back to 1977, each country enjoys a certain capacity and the use of that planned capacity is restricted to national services. However, for small countries or for countries with a small population, the use of that capacity may prove to be uneconomical. One of the compromises reached at WRC-97 was to request the ITU to study ways in which the capacity for each country could be increased. These studies have shown that an increase in capacity compared with the plan adopted by WRC-97 is possible. At WRC-2000, some delegations will advocate adoption by the Conference of a new plan based upon the ITU studies while others may favor further studies to be conducted before adopting of a revised plan at a subsequent conference.

Re-planning is a very complex matter with many inter-related aspects such as the level of constraints imposed for the protection of existing and future assignments in both space and terrestrial services, the allocations to which are different in the different regions. It also involves carrying out the re-planning on the basis of fully digital channels while accommodating existing analog systems and the interest in accommodating sub-regional systems in a Plan originally engineered on the basis of a national coverage of a fixed capacity per country. In addition to the technical challenges, the question of BSS re-planning has implications which touch on issues of national sovereignty.

Another issue expected to generate debate on the conference floor is the bid by European countries for spectrum to support a new satellite positioning system to add to the two current systems, Russia's GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System) and the US Global Positioning System (GPS). The challenge for Europe will be to secure the vital spectrum needed to ensure the system's viability and effective operation.

Highly accurate satellite positioning data is becoming increasingly important for a wide range of activities, from navigation on land, in the air, at sea and in outer space to national security to new consumer-oriented position determination applications. There are over eight million Radionavigation-Satellite Service (RNSS) receivers in use today for a wide range of applications, including safety-of-life, critical navigation on land, at sea, and in the air.

New generations of GPS and GLONASS satellites are being designed and new RNSS systems proposed including Europe's Galileo. These second-generation global navigation satellite systems promise to provide even better satellite radionavigation facilities but are also competing for frequencies in a part of the spectrum already heavily used.

While Europe's plan to set up a new, global positioning system would seem to be relatively straightforward, securing the necessary spectrum for the project proved a sticking point at the last WRC in 1997. At that event, moves to agree on allocations in new bands were blocked on the ground that the proposal for the GPS and Galileo systems to share some of the same frequency bands would effectively jeopardize smooth and reliable functioning of the GPS system. Concerns were also expressed about the shared use of bands currently allocated for aeronautical navigation, which it was said could also pose safety risks. Tough negotiations are to be expected at this year's event as the Euro 2 billion system is tentatively scheduled to go into operation in 2008.

With the growing demand for radiocommunication-based services and the resulting deluge of radio signals from cellular phones, pagers, satellite systems and more, there are concerns about interference with radioastronomy and other deep-space research services which are seeking "quiet zones" in the spectrum.

The biggest problems are in the areas of passive monitoring, such as that used by the world's largest radiotelescopes to detect extremely weak celestial sources of radio activity, which are susceptible to interference from active users such as mobile telephony.

From the point of view of passive space research, the signal strength from a cellular phone is huge - so high, in fact, that making a standard cellular phone call from the surface of the moon would register on a radiotelescope as the third most powerful source of radio activity in the universe. With unwanted emissions from other services threatening to blot out incoming cosmic signals and close the "spectral pinhole" through which astronomers and others learn about our world and the universe around us, radio astronomers are actively seeking better protection for vital research
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May 8, 2000

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