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Summary

Every part of our society is becoming increasingly reliant on satellite communications. This has consequences for operators and users, especially in the way they are accountable to various bodies of law. This article will describe the current nature of satellite communications, as well as provide a summary of the laws relevant to satellite communications. Always check with the regulator for their latest official direction, guidance and information.

Contents of this article

What does 'satellite communications' encompass?

Satellite Communications involves communication using the electromagnetic spectrum between ground receivers, and transponders on artificial satellites.

Satellite communications encompass most parts of our daily lives. It is hard to imagine life without satellite communications. However, there is a lot of technical expertise that goes into maintaining and developing these systems. As these technologies develop, the law attempts to keep up.

definition of ‘communications’

Under the definition from the Telecommunications Act 1997, communications includes any communication:

  • whether between persons and persons, things and things or persons and things; and
  • whether in the form of speech, music or other sounds; and
  • whether in the form of data; and
  • whether in the form of text; and
  • whether in the form of visual images (animated or otherwise); and
  • whether in the form of signals; and
  • whether in any other form; and
  • whether in any combination of forms.

There are a number of properties of satellite communications that impact how they are regulated. Broadly speaking, satellites most commonly sit in four orbits around the Earth:

  • Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
  • Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)
  • High Earth Orbit (HEO) and
  • Geostationary Orbit (GEO)

Communications satellites can exist in any of these orbits. Each of these orbits have unique properties that need to be reflected in rules. Two examples are:

TV Broadcast satellites:
  • These are GEO satellites. Once you have adjusted your TV antenna for a satellite TV station, the antenna does not need to track the satellite around the globe because a satellite in GEO keeps track almost precisely with the rotation of the Earth and therefore appears to float above a certain longitude at all times. Hence, this is a popular orbit for communications and media purposes.
OneWeb and Starlink:
  • The proposed OneWeb and Starlink constellations will operate out of LEO. The individual satellites will orbit the earth, and not staying stationary over a single location. By forming a constellation, the system will be continuously accessible.

These different orbits pose different challenges to regulators. Another property of satellite communication is the growing trend towards smaller and smaller devices. Whilst traditional communication is highly asymmetric (one satellite, many concurrent users or receivers) – for example television broadcast –future satellite communications will involve a large number of satellites as well as receivers.

The new satellites will largely be in LEO, and many of the new terrestrial receivers will be ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’ devices. This is a business opportunity that many entrepreneurs are looking to fill – utilising small receivers (sensors) and small satellites in LEO. An increase in these technologies leads to regulatory needs relating to Spectrum Regulation, Space situational awareness and Remote sensing laws.

Did you know there are currently 2,062 satellites in Earth’s orbit?

These are used by both private and government organizations. This number is only set to increase based on current trends. To find more information on current satellites, check out the UCS Satellite Database here.

Along with these regulatory needs, there are many others. For example, with an increased reliance on satellite communication comes an increased need for strong cybersecurity regulations. Also, if the internet of things becomes more pervasive, there is potentially a growing case for stronger privacy laws, to protect the various types of personal data that these devices collect.

Continue reading to discover just a few of these relevant areas of law below in ‘What laws apply to satellite communications’.


What laws apply to satellite communications?

Spectrum management is arguably the most crucial part of any satellite communication

The electromagnetic spectrum is the main way that those on the ground are able to talk to objects in space, and also the main way that satellites are able to communicate with those on the ground. Spectrum management is an international and national effort to regulate the use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Due to the international nature of spectrum use, there is an international interest in maintaining conformity between countries. The main body that ensures this is the International Telecommunications Union  the ITU.

The ITU deals with States, not individual commercial entities. As such, in dealings with the ITU, commercial entities are be represented by a country. Click here to read more about the ITU. Every communications satellite has to be registered with the ITU. This is largely in the form of an ITU filing. This is filed by a country on behalf of a commercial operator. Commercial operators cannot file their own ITU filing.

These filings include:

  • Advance Publication Information (API)
  • Coordination Request
  • Filing into the Master International Frequency Register

More information regarding ITU filings for all satellites can be found in our article on Spectrum Regulation.

Each country has its own way of managing use and allocating spectrum to users. National regulations need to be followed by everyone (both nationals and foreigners) operating in the particular country.

This can be challenging for foreign operators as the rules can be difficult to access due to language barriers and administrative difficulties.

In Australia national spectrum regulation is undertaken by the Australian Communications and Media Authority who administer the Radiocommunications Act 1992. ACMA deals with Australians and foreign entities wishing to use spectrum in Australia. There are a variety of different licenses that ACMA administers. The key licenses to space operations are

  • Space License
  • Space Receive License
  • Earth License
  • Earth Receive License

There are also Amateur licenses available for those wishing to test their product. More information about Australian spectrum licenses can be found in our article on Spectrum Regulation or through ACMA’s website found here.

Navigating the framework

The frameworks covering spectrum allocation can be confusing and difficult. Most importantly, they can be extremely time consuming to navigate due to the complicated nature of the regulations. As such, this process can take months and even years to complete. Time is of the essence!

See Spectrum Regulation for more information on navigating these frameworks.

Space Situational Awareness

With more and more communications satellites being placed in Low Earth Orbit, there is concern about orbital crowding, and how the power of satellite communications may be reduced if these orbitals become too crowded. There is considerable concern within the international community regarding these issues. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has expressed such a concern here.

Undertaking active debris mitigation measures can help manage many of the challenges that arise from crowded orbits and ensure that popular orbits remain a safe place for operators.

Debris management

Active debris management is an important part of Space Situational Awareness (SSA), and can help ensure that orbits crucial for communications satellites remain safe to operate in.

However, there are many legal challenges involved in Space Situational awareness operations. You can explore more of these legal challenges in our Space Situational Awareness (SSA) article.

Remote Sensing Laws

With an increase in satellite technology and communications links comes an increase in the ability to produce remote sensing technology. Remote sensing is the gathering of data about objects without directly being in contact with them.

In the space context, this is by use of a satellite in geostationary orbit or low-earth orbit, although aircraft are also very often used. Remote sensing is distinguished from the traditional notion of satellite communications in this sense. However, remote sensing operations rely on communication links between satellites and ground stations.

The legal regime applicable to remote sensing is incomplete internationally, and non-existent in Australia. However, there are still mechanisms in place that regulate this technology, especially regarding access to and distribution of sensitive data.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

This lack of regulation is not necessarily a good thing. It might appear that it makes satellites with remote sensing capabilities easier to license, it also means that the Australian and other governments have greater discretion in making determinations regarding legality. This leads to increased uncertainty, which can prove difficult to navigate.

To learn more about remote sensing technologies, and how they interact with the law see our article on Laws Applicable to Remote Sensing.

SEEK LEGAL ADVICE IF:

  • You are planning on using a communication satellite for remote sensing purposes, and are unclear about how the law could apply to your specific operation

For more information, read our article on Accessing Legal services

Regulations of the Communication itself

As the number of communications satellites increase, there is growing discussion regarding how to regulate this increase in the volume of data that will be sent through space. Some of this regulation is related to remote sensing data, that has been discussed in the Laws Applicable to Remote Sensing.

Cybersecurity

There are growing concerns regarding the security of satellite communications. These concerns are fueled by both national security interests, and the interests of consumers.

However, despite these valid concerns, there is a significant lack of international law and domestic law dealing with these concerns. The Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations (see book here) is a comprehensive guide to the relevant international law to cyber operations. The Tallinn Manual addresses cyber warfare in outer space, however there is still a lack of regulatory provisions in this area.

However, prudent advice is to ensure that your space operations are secure in all forms, include cyber. With more and more players in space, the need for good cybersecurity for space operations is only increasing.

What to do next

1. Determine what type of communications your satellite will be performing

  • This will determine what laws apply to you and your operations.
  • If you are unsure, contact a relevant authority or a legal professional (see ‘Getting legal advice’).

2. Contact the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to discuss an ITU Filing (if necessary)

  • If operating a communications satellite, you will need to consider spectrum and potentially an ITU filing.
  • Discussing ITU filings with ACMA can be a time consuming process. Ensure you begin discussions early. You can find ACMA’s website here.

3. Consider which countries you will require frequency allocations in

  • Seek out the relevant departments in the countries that you wish to operate in.
  • This may include ACMA in Australia.

4. If you are launching your own satellite, you will need to consider many other legal hurdles including launch destination, launch regulations in Australia, export control and insurance.

  • There are many other considerations that come after you have considered legal issues specific to communications. See Related Pages for content relating to these topics.

5. Contact relevant bodies

  • This may include the ITU, ACMA, Australian Space Agency and the Department of Defence, depending on what type of satellite communications technology you are providing.

Frequently Asked Questions

There is a complicated regime in place to ensure non-interference between communications satellites and different users of frequency.

This regime is coordinated both on an international and national basis.

The international regulation is coordinated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). National regulation is performed by relevant authorities in each country. In Australia, this the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

See Spectrum Regulation for more information.

Yes and No.

Whilst LEO satellites travel around the globe, there are regulations in place preventing unauthorised communications into countries that have not authorised the use of spectrum into their territory. However, there are new challenges being posed by large constellations for space-based internet, that could potentially be accessed by users in any country provided they have the correct equipment. This may have unanticipated social, economic and political implications.

See Spectrum Regulation for more information.

There are a number of international regulations that apply to satellite communications. Most of these relate to the use of spectrum that is crucial to communications operations.

In this article, various areas of international regulations that apply are discussed.

There is currently no legal requirement for communications satellites to possess an onboard SSA system. However, there is growing discussion in this space to ensure that orbital crowding does not reduce the ability to operate in crucial orbits.

See Space Situational Awareness (SSA) for more information.