What does 'satellite communications' encompass?
Satellite Communications involves communication using the electromagnetic spectrum between ground receivers and transponders on artificial satellites.
Satellite communications are involved in most parts of our daily lives. It is hard to imagine life without satellite communications. Maintaining and developing these system requires a significant amount technical expertise, and capabilities continue to progress. There is need for positive and active legal reform in the area the ensure the law remains abreast of these technological developments, so as not to impair activities or applications reliant and dependent on satellite services.
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, not staying positionally locked over a single location. By forming a constellation, the system will be continuously accessible.
These different orbits pose different challenges to regulators. Another important aspect of satellite communications is the growing trend towards smaller and smaller devices. Whilst traditional communication is highly asymmetric (one satellite, many concurrent users or receivers — such as in the case of for television broadcasts) 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.
Further and additional regulatory requirements apply. With an increased reliance on satellite communication comes an increased and particular need for strong cybersecurity regulatory safeguards. In the event that the Internet of Things (‘IoT’) network becomes more pervasive, there is potentially a growing case for stronger privacy laws to protect the various types of personal data that IoT devices collect.
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 uniformity between countries. The main body that ensures this consistency is the International Telecommunications Union (otherwise known as the ITU).
The ITU deals with States, not individual commercial entities. As such, in dealings with the ITU, commercial entities must be represented by a country. Every communications satellite has to be registered with the ITU, by way of making an ‘ITU Filing’. Filings are undertaken by a country on behalf of a commercial operator. Commercial operators cannot file their own satellites with the ITU independently.
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 the use of spectrum, and allocating spectrum to users. National regulations need to be followed by everyone (both nationals and foreigners) operating in a particular country.
This can be challenging for foreign operators as the rules can be difficult to access because of 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 (AUS). 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.
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 their complicated nature. As such, this process can take months and even years to complete. Time is of the essence!
See our page on spectrum regulation for more information relating to 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 access to, and the feasibility of, satellite communications may be affected. There is considerable concern within the international community regarding these issues. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (‘UNOOSA’) has previously expressed such concerns.
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.
However, there are many legal challenges involved in space situational awareness operations. For more information on these legal challenges, visit our page on Space Situational Awareness (SSA).
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.
Regulation of the communication itself
As the number of communications satellites increase, there is growing discussion regarding how to regulate the increasing volume of data being transmitted through space. Some of this regulation is related to remote sensing data.
There are growing concerns regarding the security of satellite communications. These concerns are fuelled by national security interests, as well as the interests of consumers.
However, despite these valid concerns, there is a significant lack of international law and domestic law addressing the issues involved. The Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations is a comprehensive guide outlining international law relating to cyber operations. The Tallinn Manual addresses cyber warfare in outer space, however there is still a substantial lack of regulatory clarity in this area.
If you are an Australian space entrepreneur planning to undertake activities involving satellite communications, it would be prudent to ensure your anticipated activities are secure in all forms, including against cyber threats. With more and more participants and operations in space, the need for good cybersecurity in 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 (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 use and related ITU processes.
- Discussing ITU filings with ACMA can be a time consuming process. Ensure you begin discussions early. For more information on the processes involved, visit ACMA’s website.
3. Consider which countries you may require frequency allocations in
- Seek out the relevant departments in the countries that you wish to operate in.
- If you are planning to conduct operations out of Australia, this will involve contacting ACMA.
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.
- For more information, visit our pages on Launch, Export Controls, and Liability and Insurance.
5. Contact relevant bodies
- This may include the ITU, ACMA, the 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 our page on 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 our page on 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.
For more information, visit our page on Space Situational Awareness (SSA).