The following is an edited excerpt from a background document issued by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on the paper satellite problem. The issue will be addressed at the four-week Plenipotentiary Conference 2002 in Marrakesh, Morocco from Sept. 23 to Oct. 16. Despite a general outcry by ITU Members and the adoption of a radical new Resolution by the Minneapolis Plenipotentiary Conference four years ago, the issue of satellite over-filing — often known more familiarly as "the paper satellite problem" — once again takes its place among the more contentious agenda items at this year’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference. This year’s delegates will examine new proposals for increased filing charges, stricter administrative due diligence along with penalties for non-payment of processing fees. But while the scale and urgency of the problem seems accepted by all, much disagreement remains over how it should be solvedIf the issue of paper satellites is getting rather long in the tooth, it’s because it’s consistently proved one of the ITU’s thorniest problems. While the ITU recognizes and upholds the right of all nations — rich and poor alike — to equitable and affordable access to the satellite orbit, there’s an urgent need to reconcile this with an effective way of reducing the mountain of casual applications for satellite slots, many of which are filed for systems which will never see the light of day. The Root of the Problem Since the first satellite systems began carrying communications traffic back in the early 1960s, satellites have been enthusiastically embraced as a highly efficient means of transporting and delivering large amounts of data across a very wide geographical area. Now, emerging new services such as third generation mobile telephony and proposed broadband access systems that envisage high-speed wireless connections via large constellations of rapidly moving satellites, are also putting pressure on global demand for satellite orbits and frequencies. The huge worldwide demand for satellite-based services has seen steady growth in the number of satellites providing infocommunications services over the last 15 years, from 24 in 1985 to an estimated 150 in 2002. While this has been a boon for service providers and consumers alike, it’s also resulted in an increasingly densely-packed neighbourhood out in space — a situation that, as on the terrestrial plane, is resulting in scramble for "prime real estate" in the form of desirable orbital slots. Paper Chase The strong demand for satellite-based services combined with a lengthy international co-ordination procedure that can take years to complete has led to deliberate and routine "over-filing" " in short, requests for coordination for orbital positions and frequencies that are not actually needed, with a view to "reserving" those positions and frequency bands for possible future use, or for commercial resale to another user at a later date. With coordination services previously offered free to ITU Member States, and with no penalty for failing to develop a notified system, it is perhaps not surprising that regular over-filing as a provision for future needs made sense to many. For the BR, however, the phenomenon of "paper satellites" poses a two-fold problem. First, demand for complex coordination work continues to outstrip the Bureau’s resources, resulting in a large and growing backlog of coordination requests. At present, the backlog of systems still awaiting full coordination stands at around 1,200, with BR regularly receiving between 400-500 requests for new systems each year, only around one tenth of which will ever make it to the launch pad. In addition, the existence of a large number of paper satellites greatly hinders the speedy coordination of real systems, and can add significantly to their cost. This is because each satellite needs to take account of the frequency and positioning requirements of all other systems. Since paper satellites, which have completed the coordination process are eventually listed in the ITU’s Master International Frequency Register just as if they were real systems, their operating parameters and requirements need to be taken into account when coordinating new real-life systems, generating a great deal of unnecessary work and technical problems for genuine systems. Remedial Action While the problem of paper satellites has been recognized for many years, coming to grips with the issue has proved particularly tricky, not least because of resistance by various stakeholders, and in particular many of the larger satellite-operating countries, which have generally opposed the application of fees because of the added financial burden this would impose on an industry already beset by extremely high costs and financial risks. These larger players have in turn found unexpected and perhaps unlikely support from a handful of developing countries, which have argued that the imposition of fees contravenes the international principle of fair and free access to orbital spectrum. That said, with timeframes for coordination running into several years and debate on the issue at WRC-97 and WRC-2000 failing to make any real headway, the Minneapolis Plenipotentiary Conference did succeed in introducing an administration and processing fee for all new systems, through the adoption of Resolutions 88 and 91. The Marrakesh Agenda While there are some early indications this new fee may be going some way to dissuading casual filing, over-filing nonetheless remains a significant problem. What’s more, the cost recovery charges decided by the Minneapolis Plenipotentiary only go part way toward offsetting the high cost of system coordination, with many of the real costs excluded from the methodology used to determine the fee structure. In recognition of the urgent need to clear a backlog that continues to seriously hamper operator’s business plans and users’ access to new services, ITU Council 2001 established the Satellite Backlog Action Group (SAT-BAG, Council Resolution 1182). The Recommendations of this group will form the basis of much of the discussion at Marrakesh, and include proposals for revising the processing fee schedule and improving budget flexibility by not including cost recovery fees within the limits on expenditure currently exercised.