Editorial | Conciliation over Protracted Conflict

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The successful launch Aug. 29 of the Es’hail-1/Eutelsat 25B satellite could have brought a long-simmering frequency dispute between multiple satellite operators and their government patrons to a boil. Instead, it hails the arrival of a new operator with lofty ambitions, Es’hailSat of Qatar, which along with partner Eutelsat of Paris has made solid progress toward resolving its differences with regional rival Arabsat.

Long before its launch, Es’hail-1/Eutelsat 25B’s ability to operate unencumbered at the 25.5 degrees east orbital slot was in question because Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is broadcasting Iran’s Zohreh-2 satellite service from its Badr-5 satellite right next door at 26 degrees east in some of the same Ku-band frequencies. Es’hailSat, Eutelsat and their respective host governments argued that Iran had not brought Zohreh-2 into service in accordance with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) rules and therefore should forfeit its rights to the disputed broadcast frequencies. Saudi Arabia has backed Iran in its claim to the frequencies.

Despite strong evidence that Zohreh-2 had not complied with the rules, international regulators had refused to rule on the matter, directing the disputing parties to sort things out among themselves. A solution to the three-year standoff appeared beyond reach until this past February, when Eutelsat moved its Eutelsat 70A satellite to 25.5 degrees east as a placeholder for Es’hail-1/Eutelsat 25B as its launch approached. In an indication that the two services can coexist, there have been no reported interference issues between Eutelsat 70A and Badr-5. 

Then, on the eve of the Es’hail-1/Eutelsat 25B launch, Es’hailSat and Arabsat announced what at one time would have seemed a highly unlikely a partnership arrangement under which the Qatari upstart will acquire from Arabsat the rights to 500 megahertz of Ku-band capacity at 26 degrees east for its planned Es’hail-2 satellite. The companies said the agreement will help them fully develop television broadcasting services at 26 degrees east and could enable them to provide mutual backup services. 

There still are potential stumbling blocks in the budding partnership between Es’hailSat and Arabsat. The two have yet to strike an accord to ensure noninterference in Ka-band broadcasts, and a statement issued by Es’hailSat Aug. 21 suggests there might be outstanding Ku-band compatibility issues as well. In addition, the ITU’s refusal to challenge Iran’s dubious claims regarding Zohreh-2 and leave it to the parties to resolve the resulting dispute remains troubling. While this particular issue seems to have worked itself out, it has done little to allay longstanding concerns about the ITU’s ability to police the increasingly congested geostationary orbit belt. 

Nevertheless, the accommodation reached to date in this particular dispute strongly suggests good faith on all sides — with the possible exception of Iran, whose role in the resolution, if any, is unclear. It also seems to reflect a sense, even among rivals in a crowded Middle East market, that an orderly environment that’s conducive to growth is far preferable to a fractious situation where one party’s gain is inevitably viewed as another’s loss. With new operators, often backed by governments, arriving all the time, flexibility and conciliation should be the options of first resort when the inevitable conflicts arise.