“Paper satellites” and the free use of outer space

The
orbit location spectrum resource is the main source of value for the growing
satellite industry.[i] Due to its position in relation to the Earth,
the most craved orbital slots are those in the GSO.[ii]
In this context, this resource has a dual nature, as its value can be realized
only through the simultaneous use of both the orbital location and the
electromagnetic spectrum.[iii]
The laws of physics cannot be bent by the will of States, and thus, if two
different transmissions are made in the same geographic area at the same
frequency, they will interfere with each other resulting in deterioration or
even loss of signal.[iv] This
is where the role of the ITU comes in.[v]
By coordinating frequencies between operators of neighboring satellite
networks, it aims at ensuring that no satellite system interferes with another
by operating on the same radio frequency in the same orbital position.[vi]
The demand for satellite based telecommunication services increased in the past
25 years, and so has the demand for frequency spectrum usage.[vii]
Where there was once an orbital separation between two satellite frequencies of
over 3 degrees, many satellites are now operating at a less than 2 degrees
separation, thus increasing the risk of interference between the two
frequencies.[viii]
The orbital resources of the GSO have become more and more saturated, almost
reaching the value of “prime real estate”[ix],
its scarce nature triggering a race amongst States to obtain a spot on orbit.
Due to the “first-come, first-served” system of allocation of the ITU[x],
States which do not have a chance in the near future to send a satellite of
their own into outer space, have turned to a method of reserving a spot in the
GSO, in the hope that it will be brought into use in the future. As the
practice of advanced filing blocks the orbital slot without effectively using
it, such a practice infringes both the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty[xi]
[herein after: OST] and of the ITU Radio Regulations[xii]
[herein after: RR]. These satellites, that are to take their spot in orbit,
usually never materialize; they remain only as a request on paper, and thus
their name “paper satellites”.[xiii]

[i] Maria Buzdugan, Recent Challenges Facing the Management of
Radio Frequencies and Orbital Resources Used by Satellites, IAC-10-E7.5.3,
p. 2.

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[ii]The geostationary orbit
is located approximately 35,786 km above the Earth’s equator, with a radius of
42,164 km. When a satellite is placed into such an orbit, because it revolves
at the same rate as the Earth, it appears motionless when regarded from the
ground. As a consequence, the transmission from the satellite will always be
over the same area. See Michael J. Finch, Limited
Space: Allocating the Geostationary Orbit, 7 Nw. J. Int’l L. & Bus.
(1986), p. 789.

[iii]Martin A. Rothblatt, Satellite Communication and Spectrum
Allocation, (1982) 76(1) Am. J. of Int’l. L., p. 56.

[iv] Roscoe M. Moore, Business-Driven Negotiations for Satellite
System Coordination: Reforming the International Telecommunication Union to
Increase Commercially Oriented Negotiations over Scarce Frequency Spectrum,
(1999) 65 J. Air L. & Com., p. 56.

[v]The ITU was established
in 1865 to facilitate and regulate the interconnection and interoperability of
national telegraph networks. Over the years, the Union’s mandate has expanded
to cover the invention of voice telephony, the development of
radiocommunications, the launch of the first communications satellites, and
most recently, the telecommunications-based information age.  Along the way, ITU’s structure and activities
have evolved and adapted to meet the needs of this changing mandate. At the
moment, The ITU membership includes hundreds of private-sector organizations,
as well as 193 States. See History of ITU Portal available at .

[vi]See Radiocommunication
Sector (ITU-R), available at .

[vii] The “massive overfilling is due to a number of
factors including the realization of the growing economic value of the scarce
spectrum and orbital resource”, Scrambling for Space in Space, ITU
Plenipotentiary to Tackle ‘Paper Satellite’ Problem, ITU Press Release, 16
September 2002, .

[viii] Committee on the
Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Scientific and Technical Subcommittee,
Forty-ninth session, Actual situation in the Geostationary Orbit, 6-17 February
2012, A/AC.105/C.1/2012/CRP.25; List of Satellites in Geostationary Orbit, ;
Paper Satellites: A Puzzle for the Industry, Satellite Today, 10 January 2010,
.

[ix]Paper Tigers: The
Scramble for Space Spectrum, ITU PP-02 Newsroom, .

[x]Presentation at the ITU
Radiocommunication Bureau Workshop on the Efficient Use of the Spectrum/Orbit
Resource, Geneva, 6 May 2009, The International Telecommunication Union .

[xi]Treaty on Principles
Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space,
Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 27 January 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410,
T.I.A.S. No. 6347, 610 U.N.T.S. 205.

[xii]ITU Radio Regulations,
2012 edition .

[xiii] There is an opinion that
the name paper satellites is not the most appropriate one as the situation of a
satellite which is waiting to be allocated a slot is similar to that of a
‘paper satellite’. Paper Satellites: A Puzzle for the Industry, Satellite
Today, 10 January 2010, .

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