Out of Space
One industry that has "taken off" in modern times is the space industry and in particular, satellites. This comes as no surprise as they are vital tools in the provision and facilitation of communication services. As the demand for faster and wider coverage of mobile and internet services grows, so too does the demand for the infrastructure that supports such services, such as satellites.
Satellites can be classified into different groups depending on their altitude of operation. For instance, Low-Earth Orbit ("LEO") satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of between 160 to 2,000 kilometres whereas Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit ("GEO") satellites orbit at an altitude of approximately 35,000 kilometres. Historically, GEO satellites have played a bigger role in providing communications services and were more widely used since their introduction in the 1960s. However, as technology advances, LEO satellites are becoming increasingly prevalent, as they are able to transmit data to Earth much faster given their lower altitude.
With the substantial rise in the number of satellites being launched into space and with many more expected to be launched in the coming years, it would appear that outer space is fast becoming congested and may quite literally be running out of space. Regulation of such space is thus required to ensure the efficient use of this space, and more importantly, that there is no harmful interference between satellites. Regulation generally covers two main resources: orbital slots and spectrum.
Orbital slots are the specific space occupied by a GEO satellite, which determines the area of earth the satellite's signals can reach. Orbital slots are also sometimes referred to as the "parking spots" of space and are assigned or allocated by the International Telecommunication Union ("ITU") generally on a first-come, first-serve basis. Certain orbital slots are in high demand due to their advantageous locations and given the limited amount of space around the Earth's orbit, orbital slots are a limited resource. To illustrate, it was reported in 2017 that there are only 1,800 available orbital slots in GEO.
Activity in the lower orbit is also ramping up. Space today is also highly commercial with big industry players such as Amazon and SpaceX planning to invest between US$10 – US$30 billion as part of their plan to provide high-speed internet to the masses, especially those in remote areas, via constellations of LEO satellites. Amazon's Project Kuiper is expected to launch a mega constellation of 3,236 satellites into LEO, whilst SpaceX's Starlink project currently has more than 1,600 satellites launched with hopes to launch as many as 42,000 satellites into LEO.
Whilst satellites may be crucial to communication services, they would be pointless without spectrum, which contain the radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over. These frequencies are used by all satellites and enable us to perform a variety of things, like make calls, connect to the internet and use navigation apps like Google Maps by allowing devices to communicate with each other. Both frequencies and orbital slots are in high demand as mobile and broadband technologies develop, therefore increasing the demand for frequencies to deliver new communications services.
Regulation of Orbital Slots and Frequencies
It is important to understand that frequencies are not something which can be physically constrained by borders as they are not a tangible resource like land which can be easily marked up and divided amongst users. Additionally, the concurrent use of the same frequency by multiple users can result in harmful interference between users. As such, it is paramount that the use of frequencies is managed and coordinated carefully amongst different users and different countries. Whilst harmful interference cannot be completely eliminated, the proper management of frequencies can certainly reduce it.
Similarly, orbital slots are a limited resource which must be managed properly in order to ensure that GEO satellites are given enough room to operate effectively and without interference. The satellites must be kept a certain distance apart from each other at all times to ensure that there is no interference caused between them and, more importantly, that they do not collide with each other.
As such, at a national level the use of frequencies is heavily monitored and regulated by our local telecommunications laws, i.e. the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. At an international level, the management and coordination of orbital slots and frequencies are carried out by the ITU. Generally, management of orbital slots involves ensuring that no two satellites are too close to each other such that there could be interference (or worse, a collision), whilst the management of frequencies involves ensuring that no frequency is overburdened by an inordinate amount of users. A key component of international frequency management is the ITU Radio Regulations ("Radio Regulations"), which prescribe how telecommunications equipment and systems must operate, and set out procedures for the registration, co-ordination and operation of satellites.
Due to the importance of orbital slots and frequencies to countries, the ITU provides governments with some control over orbital slots. It does so by designating the government of each country as "administrations", which are responsible for formally dealing with the ITU in all formal regulatory procedures.
IT Who?
The ITU is the United Nations' specialised agency for information and communications technologies where representatives from governments and the private sector coordinate global telecommunications networks and services. ITU membership consists of 193 Member States and over 900 companies, universities, research institutes, and international and regional organisations.
The ITU manages the use of frequencies worldwide to ensure that there is no harmful radio interference between users by keeping and maintaining a register of registered frequency assignments in the ITU Master International Frequency Register ("MIFR").
The Radio Regulations also contain, in Section IV of Article 5, a Table of Frequency Allocations which sets out the various frequency bands and the corresponding radiocommunications services they are allocated to, thereby ensuring minimal interference between services.
Satellite Filings
Before a satellite can use the spectrum and/or orbital resources it requires to fulfil its purpose, the satellite operator ("operator") must submit a satellite filing to obtain international recognition of these resources.
Satellite filings must be submitted to the ITU by the "notifying administration" of the country where the operator is applying from. The notifying administration for Malaysia is the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission which is responsible for the registration of Malaysia's allotments, assignments and satellite network filings at the ITU.
The basic process for the submission of a new satellite filing is as follows:

  1. The operator prepares the filing.
  2. The operator submits the filing to the notifying administration for approval.
  3. If the notifying administration rejects the filing, they can send it back to the operator for amendments or amend it themselves.
  4. The notifying administration then submits the filing to the ITU for approval.

Request for Coordination
An important step in satellite filings is known as the "coordination" stage. In this stage, the operator must study the impact of their intended usage of frequency on existing networks and identify any possible interference to the networks of other operators, whether within the same country or otherwise. The operator must then, with the help of the notifying administration, seek coordination with the operators potentially affected and the administration of any other country affected.
Coordination here refers to the process of seeking an agreement with other operators/ administrations on any potential frequency interference. The coordination agreement confers certain rights and imposes certain obligations on the administrations that are parties to that agreement. Coordination is required in all cases except for cases not listed in Article 9 of the Radio Regulations as requiring coordination. Examples of the cases listed in Article 9 include:

  1. stations in satellite networks in GEO, in any space radiocommunication service, in a frequency band and in a region where this service is not subject to a plan;
  2. space stations in the broadcasting-satellite service in any band shared on an equal primary basis with terrestrial services and where the broadcasting-satellite service is not subject to a plan in respect of terrestrial services; and
  3. all stations for which the requirement to coordinate is included in a footnote to the Table of Frequency Allocations by the ITU, for example mobile-satellite services using the frequency bands 137 – 138 MHz, 148 – 149.9 MHz and 149.9 – 150.05 MHz.

In Malaysia, coordination agreements must be ratified by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, which will thereafter liaise with the administration of the country with whom coordination is sought.
Advance Publication Information
For satellite networks not subject to the coordination procedure above, the notifying administration must submit to the ITU a general description of the satellite network for advance publication. This provides other administrations with important information on developments in orbital and spectrum resources.
Space (Regulation) Exploration
The introduction of the Space Board Bill 2020 marks Malaysia's venture into space (and space-related activities) regulation. The Bill requires, among others, licenses to build or manufacture a space object (i.e. spacecraft and launch vehicle, together with their component parts), a launch permit to launch a space object into space, and to register a space object which has been launched into the earth's orbit or beyond with the Space Regulator. More details on the Space Board Bill can be found in our previous alert.
It is ironic how something as vast as outer space can be congested or limited.1 Nonetheless, spectrum and orbital slots will continue to be vital resources for nations worldwide and it will be interesting to see how these increasingly limited resources will be managed effectively on an international level. At a national level, there are sure to be developments to keep an eye out for as we have already taken our first step towards the regulation of space with the introduction of the Space Board Bill 2020.

1 For an illustration of how congested LEO has become, see: https://platform.leolabs.space/visualization.
For an illustration of how congested Earth's orbit in general is, see: https://maps.esri.com/rc/sat2/index.html

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