Imagine being in a large room of a few hundred people speaking at once. This could be a social gathering such as a wedding or some other event. One person in that room has been designated to give a speech. To get control, that person taps the side of a glass and the room falls silent. The person speaks and the message is delivered. By convention, this person has the authority to get people to pay attention. People comply as convention has dictated that the person at the top table at some point needs to speak and this can only be done if everyone else plays along. Buy what if there were no convention, how does one person get heard by all?
In the world of telecommunications, we face the same challenge. Various frequencies across the radio spectrum are used all over the world for voice and data communications. Different frequencies in that spectrum can be regarded as rooms where if everyone tries to communicate at the same time, no information is passed.
In this article, we will take a close look at how the radio spectrum is managed. Licensing is the key method to impose order over the sort of technologies we use. Licensing will vary from country to country and in some places, if rules are broken, severe penalties can be dished out by local authorities. Read on to find out how licensing works for radio, VSAT and general sat-coms and how to avoid being caught out.
If you are short of time and cannot read the full article now, scroll down to the final section and answer my challenge to you. You answer might lead you to take actions to avoid a large fine or members of your staff being sent to prison!
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The ITU has existed as a body for 150 years. It is the specialist UN agency which governs telecommunications whether its telephones, internet standards, radio communications or satellite communications. Initially it was founded as an international conference to make the transmission of wired telegraph signals more efferent. From 1901 radio communications started to become popular and by 1906, the incompatibility between radio systems meant that some sort of standard would be needed as a result, the very first radiotelegraph convention was produced which is now known as the Radio Regulations we use today. The ITU joined the newly created United Nations in January 1949.
The radio frequency spectrum is a very precious and finite resources. It is imperative that the radio spectrum is managed properly otherwise all radio users will interfere with each other thus making the smooth flow of communications impossible. Over the years, 130 nations have signed up to the ITU and as a result various regulations have been agreed which reserves specific frequencies for specific uses. At sea, ships use a combination of short range and long range radio frequencies so that ship to ship and ship to shore communications take place. Channel 16 (156.800Mhz) is known to all mariners around the world as the international frequency to send a distress call. Other allocated uses will include aviation, amateur radio etc.
The is also the regulator for data communications. They allocate orbit slots for international communications satellites such as VSAT and allocate what frequencies should be used by each satellite. As satellite signals are highly directional, frequencies are often reused but when this happens, the ITU ensures that satellites which use the same frequencies are sufficiently spaced apart so that they do not interfere with each other.
Many frequencies are do not have international classification and as some frequencies are short range allocation is delegated to government agencies.
In addition to allocating frequencies, the ITU is a standard setting organization. It specifies the format used to transmit data and voice and defines how much clear space must be left between each frequency so that interference is avoided. Over the years, as technology has improved, spacing has been reduced which has allowed more channels to be created. In the maritime VHF band, capacity has doubled since the 1950s.
In each country, the government will usually have an authority which regulates the use of the radio frequency spectrum. These authorities have such an important role to play that they exist in even the newest countries such as South Sudan. A full list of regulating authorities can be found on Wikipedia. So what do these authorities do? How much power do they have?
The telecoms regulators have a great deal of power. Their expertise should never be underestimated as they will have access to technicians. In sparsely populated countries like Australia and many other countries in Africa, radio has been the main form of communications for many decades. Locally, the authorities will be responsible for the following;
- Allocation of frequencies to organisations.
- Equipment type approval.
- Licensing of media broadcasting (commercial radio and TV stations)
- Approval of unlicensed equipment (combination of equipment type approval, frequency allocation with transmission power limits).
- Investigation and enforcement.
Some countries are more sensitive than others to the use of radio and satellite communications. Infringement of regulations will result in a range of punishments such as fines, confiscation of equipment, imprisonment, deportation or an order for an organization to cease all activity, close and leave the country.
Some countries have a light touch approach, but others will have very prescriptive regulations which must be complied with. Regulations will apply to anything which transmits or receives and can potentially cover VHF Radio, HF Radio, VSAT, portable satellite communications and in some cases, a permit is needed for SatNav (GPS)!
In many countries, NGOs ignore such rules and fail to register equipment. The nature of communications means that the technology can be detected if used which can result in sanctions if the equipment is not licensed.
To get legal can be complex. International NGOs may need to involve other government departments. Licenses might not be awarded by government agencies unless perhaps the following permissions have been obtained:
- Planning permission for aerials.
- Validation by the ministry of finance to confirm taxes have been paid on the equipment
- Proof that the organization applying has sufficiently qualified radio operators
- Permission granted by police, military and other security related authorities.
- Permission and support from any agency the NGO is working with.
The process is easier in some countries than others, but not the same in all countries.
How to be legal
The golden rule is to know the rules and do not break them. Here are a few tips on how to stay legal (or get legal!)
- Know what communications equipment is legal in the country where you are working. In some places, only certain brands of satellite telephone may be used. Also beware of importing mass marketed PMR license free radios. These radios are normally sold in specific regions and comply with local laws. A PMR radio bought in Spain, can be used throughout Europe legally, but would be illegal in the USA, Asia, Middle East and Africa.
- Do your homework first. When applying for a radio license, you need to develop a country communications plan first. Have an awareness where all of your sites are located. For longer range radio communications such as Codan HF SSB, get expert advice from a radio trusted radio expert. You need to have an understanding of what frequencies are likely to work between sites before you apply for a license.
- Radio authorities will give you potentially complex forms asking for details about the radio, aerial and radio station location. Make sure accurate information is provided. Get advice from a radio expert if needed. If you do not understand any questions, don’t guess the answer. Always provide accurate and truthful information.
Radio licensing can be expensive as there will be multiple charges. As a bare minimum, organizations will be charged for each frequency they are allocated. In many countries, there might be a fee per every radio, VSAT or satellite phone licensed. Where this is the case, organizations will need to contact the regulator each time a new piece of equipment is commissioned.
The licensing process can take a long time. In some countries, licenses are required before any attempt is made to import a radio. It is really important that procurement teams validate that the radios are permitted in the country to begin with. SCI radio kits comply with most country standards, however be careful about which satellite phones are imported. Inmarsat products are illegal in Ethiopia, but Thuraya is permitted. There will be plenty of other examples.
Do not break the terms of any license. Licenses tend to be specific, and will become invalid if the equipment specification is changed. The easiest way organization break rules is by adding additional frequencies for which they are licensed. Organization have been caught out in Kenya and have been fined.
VSAT also needs licensing. If you have purchased VSAT from a local supplier, and they tell you that your site is licensed, ask for proof. The VSAT is only licensed if you have documentation to prove it.
The license is only valid for use by the organization it has been granted to. If the legal entity of the site changes for any reason (e.g. Equipment and site transferred to local partner), in most countries, the license becomes invalid and a new one in needed.
Special circumstances: In some countries, radios might be programmed by WFP, ETC or another UN agency. Generally they will have a blanket license in place to cover the humanitarian response community. It is essential check that any radios use are covered under such special arrangements.
Are your communications systems in country legal?
- Do you know where your license(s) kept?
- Is the license up to date?
- Does it cover all the radios owned in country?
- Does it cover all the frequencies used?
- Have any changes been made to equipment since the license was granted?
- Has any equipment been relocated? If so, was the license updated?
How to make the problem go away.
Action will be required to establish where organisations might be exposed. Once gaps have been identified, the next step is apply for licenses in all places where they may be needed. depending upon the size of your organisation this might end up being a massive task which requires outside help. Specialist businesses such as Hyde Associates exist to provide licensing assistance. They can project manage license applications and then continue to work with client organisations to actively manage licences so that the organisation remains legal all of the time.