By Jeffrey Krauss, perpetrator of techno-babble and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

International negotiations in the past were controlled by government experts; in the future, they will be controlled by industry representatives who have a lot to gain (or lose) from the decisions.

Every few years, the nations of the world send their radio spectrum experts to a conference to decide how the spectrum will be used, how different services can share frequency bands, and how to minimize interference between different services. The 1995 WRC was held in Geneva, in a conference center adjacent to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

This conference center has several huge halls that look like the United Nations General Assembly, with rows and rows of delegates all wearing headphones. About 140 countries participated in this conference. All oral statements are simultaneously translated into six languages. Documents are printed in three languages. You think, "This is the way governments negotiate." But then you learn that the real negotiations take place in the hallways and small rooms.

Important issues for the U.S.

The U.S. delegation went into this conference with three major goals. First, allocate additional VHF and UHF spectrum for low earth orbiting satellites, the so-called "little LEOS." Second, advance the effective date from 2005 to 2000 for so-called "big LEOS" to use spectrum around 2 GHz for satellite communications. Third, allocate spectrum around 5 GHz, 15 GHz and 29 GHz to be used as part of big LEOS networks.

Low earth orbit satellite systems are very different from the geostationary satellites we've used for years to deliver programming to cable headends. Geostationary satellites just sit there at a fixed spot, while LEO satellites continually orbit and might pass over all the countries of the globe. That's why it takes an international conference to deal with issues of LEOS spectrum use and interference.

At VHF and UHF, the frequencies are heavily used in other countries for land mobile communications, and are viewed as too valuable to be turned over to U.S.-owned little LEOS operators. The U.S. did not meet its goals of allocating additional spectrum for little LEOS.

At 2 GHz, the frequencies are heavily used in some countries for fixed point-to-point microwave systems, and these countries did not want to pay for new microwave equipment operating at higher frequencies. The Arab countries in particular were opposed to the U.S. proposal. The result is that the big LEOS operators, if they want to get into operation earlier than 2005, will have to go to these countries and buy new microwave equipment for incumbent users, moving them to higher frequencies.

That is exactly what the FCC required for broadband PCS auction winners who want to displace incumbent microwave systems. But the ITU is not the FCC; it cannot order countries to give up spectrum if they do not want to. The Arab countries, however, have figured out how to work within the existing ITU procedures and still extract the economic value from "their" radio spectrum when more advanced countries want to use it.

Higher frequencies

Finally, the U.S. achieved most of its goals at higher frequencies, after strong opposition from the Europeans. The key players here have names like Iridium, Odyssey, GlobalStar, Constellation and Teledesic. They each had their sights set on very specific frequency bands, which they want to use throughout the world. They each got the United States to incorporate their needs into the U.S. position, partly because they are all owned or dominated by U.S. companies. For example, Iridium is controlled by Motorola, Teledesic is owned by Bill Gates and Craig McCaw, and Odyssey is owned by TRW.

But at the WRC, differences were apparent. Iridium, GlobalStar and Constellation all have large European investors. The European delegations supported their specific needs. Teledesic and Odyssey do not have European partners. The Europeans opposed their requests.

Teledesic spent a year lobbying Third World countries, extolling the benefits of its satellite system for rural and sparsely populated areas. Countries like Morocco became strong supporters of Teledesic. In the end, Teledesic got nearly all the spectrum it wanted, far more than the Europeans initially wanted to permit. In the end, Odyssey also got most of the spectrum it wanted, but this success was due largely to the efforts of the U.S. Government negotiators at the conference, who felt it was their obligation to work for the U.S. position, rather than Odyssey's business efforts or political skills.


It was apparent to me that industry representatives will play a much more active role in future world radio conferences. Companies with international spectrum needs will have to create their own foreign relations departments, lobbying smaller countries and establishing partnerships with companies in larger countries. And foreign companies will have to take control of their own destinies, in the same way that U.S. companies have done. It is now evident in even the smallest countries that radio spectrum is big business.