Eutelsat and Arabsat Orbital Slot Dispute Near Resolution

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PARIS — A three-year clash between satellite fleet operators Eutelsat and Arabsat about access to radio frequencies at a profitable orbital slot over the Middle East is on the verge of being resolved, according to industry officials familiar with the agreement.

While the major dispute is about Ku-band frequencies, Eutelsat and Arabsat each has an additional incentive to find a modus vivendi: Both are building satellites with Ka-band capacity that cannot easily coexist without careful coordination, officials said.

The placement of an orbiting Eutelsat satellite at the disputed orbital slot in February, and its operation without interference from a neighboring Arabsat spacecraft, is an early signal that the two parties have worked through the difficulties that might have caused widespread Ku-band interference to compromise both companies’ business plans.

The Eutelsat 70A satellite, now called Eutelsat 25C, was moved to 25.5 degrees east in late February to act as a placeholder for Eutelsat as it awaits the launch in August of the Eutelsat 25B/Es’hailSat 1 satellite to that location. If the recently moved Eutelsat satellite can operate with Arabsat without interference, so can the new satellite, officials said.

In separate interviews, the chief executives of Eutelsat of Paris and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat declined to declare an end to a problem that has involved the government of Iran — an Arabsat customer at the disputed slot — and the Qatar Satellite Co., Es’hailSat, a Eutelsat customer that wants to establish its presence in the Middle East.

Khalid A. Balkheyour, chief executive of Arabsat, said the 50-50 split of the disputed Ku-band frequencies between Eutelsat and Arabsat, which he has long advocated, now appears to have both sides’ approval.

Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen said he too is hopeful that the emerging compromise can be translated into a formal agreement between the two companies.

Arabsat has permitted the Iranian government to use frequencies that Eutelsat and other operators have argued no longer belong to Iran because they missed a use-it-or-lose-it deadline established by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations affiliate that regulates wireless frequencies and satellite orbital slots.

But the relevant ITU bodies have declined to condemn Iran’s use of the spectrum, opting instead for repeated calls that the relevant parties work things out on their own.

Eutelsat meanwhile has been building the Eutelsat 25B/Es’hailSat 1 satellite with Es’hailSat and moved forward with a planned August launch despite the lack of an agreement with Arabsat.

The imminent launch of Eutelsat 25B/Es’hailSat 1 helped bring both parties to the negotiating table and helped Arabsat move away from its long-standing support for the Iranian position.

Arabsat and Eutelsat both have reasons for not wanting to make life difficult for Es’hailSat, which has a strategic partnership with Qatari satellite news broadcaster Al Jazeera and has made clear its plans to build its own satellites in the future.

Es’hailSat Chief Executive Ali Ahmed Al-Kuwari, in a March 21 interview, said his company is looking to build several satellites for its own use, using Al Jazeera as its anchor customer.

Looking for orbital slots that it could lease from existing operators, he said Es’hailSat approached multiple fleet operators including Intelsat and SES, both of Luxembourg; Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong; Arabsat and Eutelsat.

Two industry officials said Es’hailSat has thrown in with Arabsat following Arabsat’s agreement to share its Ku-band frequencies with Es’hailSat to permit the latter company to grow. Al-Kuwari declined to confirm this, saying negotiations were continuing with Arabsat and with Eutelsat.

“We were looking at green-field options, and at sharing frequencies at existing hot spots,” Al-Kuwari said, referring to orbital slots with large, established satellite television markets.

“We decided it would be better to go to an existing hot spot. Eutelsat was able to offer something at 7-8 degrees west, and Arabsat at 26 degrees west. What we are asking from our prospective partners is a transfer of frequency rights — with backup capacity as well,” Al-Kuwari said. “What we bring to the table is our valuable content, Al Jazeera.”

Eutelsat’s longstanding partnership with Egypt’s Nilesat operator at the 7-8 degrees west neighborhood could make it difficult for the Paris operator to come to terms with Es’hailSat, industry officials said.

Eutelsat 25B/Es’hailSat 1 includes a Ka-band payload. Eutelsat has lost some of its regulatory rights to Ka-band at that orbital slot because the satellite is behind schedule. Arabsat in the interim has delayed the launch of its Badr-7 satellite to add a large Ka-band payload for Emerging Markets Communications (EMC) of Miami, which plans to provide video and Internet broadband to a 34-nation area using the Ka-band payload.

The contract with EMC delayed the Badr-7 launch from 2012 or 2013 to late 2015, potentially costing Arabsat some of its Ka-band rights at the slot despite the fact that the orbiting Badr-5 satellite also broadcasts in Ka-band, albeit with a much smaller Ka-band payload.

With each company capable of challenging the other at the ITU, both have agreed to compromise on the Ka-band allocations. As with the agreement on Ku-band, the Ka-band deal has not been signed but is imminent, industry officials said.

“What we would like is a complete coordination agreement with Arabsat in Ku- and Ka-band,” said Jacques Dutronc, Eutelsat’s director of development and innovation. We have [ITU] filings, and Arabsat has filings. I am optimistic that we can reach an agreement.”

 

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