Eutelsat To Field Test New Anti-jamming Capability

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PARIS — Commercial satellite fleet operator Eutelsat is placing an experimental anti-jamming capability on one of its upcoming satellites to be stationed over the Middle East, a decision prompted by increased intentional interference in the region and made possible by a program financed by the French and European space agencies.

If the technology works as designed, it could facilitate wider adoption of interference-mitigation technology by commercial fleet operators, especially those operating in regions, such as the Middle East, where intentional signal interference has been a growing problem, industry officials said. The cost of anti-jamming technology up to now has been prohibitive, they say.

Some operators concede they have been loath to accept the idea that interference may be more than a temporary phenomenon.

Paris-based Eutelsat’s decision appears to be the first concrete success for a new European Space Agency (ESA) initiative called the Flight Heritage Program, also known as Atlas, which seeks to facilitate the transfer of promising new satellite technologies to flight hardware.

Eutelsat will be placing a new generation of frequency converters on its Eutelsat 8 West B satellite, under construction by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. The satellite is scheduled for launch in 2015 and will operate at 8 degrees west. Eutelsat and fleet operator Nilesat of Egypt have partnered in the development of a “hot bird” slot at 7 degrees and 8 degrees west, meaning a position that gathers sufficient television programming to attract a large audience, which in turn attracts more broadcasters.

Eutelsat said the combined positions now count more than 30 million homes whose rooftop dishes are pointed toward the orbital slots.

But the Middle East, especially since the Arab Spring and the political unrest in Iran, has been a region hit repeatedly by intentional interference. Nilesat and Eutelsat have both complained to international frequency regulators about it, to no real effect, as has the Arabsat consortium based in Saudi Arabia. Arabsat and Nilesat have said the Arab Spring-related interference has reached a point to where it is having a material effect on their revenue.

In the past, these operators have said those interfering have proved difficult to shake. One method that works with unsophisticated sources of interference, including some unintentional sources, is to increase the power on a broadcast’s uplink to the satellite so that it overwhelms the interference source.

But the more recent examples of interference in the Middle East and in East Asia have featured well-equipped groups with sufficient equipment to follow the power increase.

Part of ESA’s Artes telecommunications research program, and a similar, if narrower, effort by the French space agency, CNES, with its Flip, or Flexible Payload, initiative is to enable satellite operators and broadcasters to skip from frequency to frequency on the uplink signal, escaping the interference signal.

“What we can do with this is stay one step ahead of the interference in the way we use the uplink,” said Jacques Dutronc, Eutelsat’s chief development and innovation officer.

In a Jan. 23 interview, Dutronc said Eutelsat would be interested in applying the same technology to many of its satellites given that the price of it is less of an issue than with anti-jamming and signal-nulling technologies long used aboard military telecommunications satellites.

ESA’s Artes and the CNES Flip efforts have been under way for several years. What they have lacked until recently is the ability for the hardware builders to advance the work beyond the design phase. Lacking the final steps to full ground qualification, the work has not been picked up by commercial satellite fleet operators, who in general are not early adopters of new technologies.

ESA’s Atlas program seeks to change that by co-financing, with industry, the pursuit of component qualification up to an including the construction of a proto-flight model.

“This de-risks the project for the commercial customer, and this is the real advantage of Atlas,” one industry official said. “The original work owes mainly to the CNES Flip program, but it’s Atlas that has given us the extra push needed to win commercial operator approval by helping us go beyond the production of a mechanical test model to the proto-flight model. That makes all the difference.”

Dutronc said the frequency converters, plus a power-allocation system that sets power levels on a given channel to actual use, freeing power for other channels — the result of another ESA-CNES program — are not mission-critical and thus should not pose any special issues for Eutelsat’s insurance underwriters.

Eutelsat expects to carry backup systems just in case, and the satellite’s primary broadcast function will not be impaired even if they do not work. “None of it represents single-point failures,” Dutronc said.

The industry official said neither technology carries enormous technical risk, but that like many innovations in the satellite telecommunications field they have struggled to make the last leap from ground-qualified to flight-qualified.