WASHINGTON — The heads of two satellite fleet operators involved in a game of orbital-slot chicken said they remain open to a compromise despite two years of fruitless discussions mediated by a United Nations affiliate.
Chief Executive Michel de Rosen and Khalid A. Balkheyour, chief executive of Arabsat, conceded that the most recent talks, held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during the Cabsat exhibition the week of Feb. 27, had ended with no real progress.
In separate briefings here during the Satellite 2012 conference organized by Access Intelligence LLC, neither voiced optimism that the dispute could be resolved soon. They declined to speculate on what would happen when a large Eutelsat-built satellite, whose broadcast frequencies are on a collision course with an operating Arabsat spacecraft, arrives in orbit in mid-2013.
Paris-based Eutelsat and the 21-nation Arabsat organization of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, have been at loggerheads over who has rights to radio frequencies around 26 degrees east. Arabsat has a satellite at that position that is hosting an Iranian government broadcasting service. Iran has claimed to international frequency regulators that its use of transponders aboard the Arabsat satellite is sufficient to register Iran’s Zohreh-2 satellite network.
Eutelsat has argued that Zohreh-2 lost its rights to the position years ago when it failed to meet deadlines for bringing the slot into use.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations organization that regulates radio frequencies and satellite orbital positions, has struggled to resolve the issue, especially since it is at pains to contradict a sovereign state when that state makes claims about its own systems.
The dispute, which remains unresolved, has cast a harsh light on the limits of the ITU’s real authority to enforce rules of conduct in space.
At the quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference that ended in February, ITU nations sought to prevent future Zohreh-2-type confrontations by saying that while a sovereign nation’s word cannot be challenged, no nation can declare that it began operating a reserved network by using satellites licensed to another nation without that nation’s consent.
Iranian authorities had said the Zohreh-2 network met its ITU regulatory deadlines by broadcasting over transponders on a satellite licensed by the United States and operated by, and a satellite licensed by France and operated by Eutelsat. The respective U.S. and French parties denied that this was the case.
Arabsat and Iran at one point suggested that the disputed frequencies be divided equally, with Iran, Arabsat and Eutelsat each taking a one-third share. Eutelsat, represented by the French government, rejected that proposal, saying the ITU should not validate the equivalent of squatter’s rights in the geostationary arc.
More recently, the ITU suggested that the frequencies be divided equally between France and Saudi Arabia, with Arabsat taking responsibility for determining how much of its 50 percent share would be given to Iran.
In a March 15 interview, Balkheyour said Arabsat could accept this, and also accepts that it will be responsible for selling the agreement to Iran.
“What I have said is, basically, let’s have us and Eutelsat put our engineers into a room, lock the door and tell them they can’t come out until they agree on a compromise based on a 50-50 split,” Balkheyour said. “We had wanted the one-third, one-third, one-third arrangement, but the ITU then suggested that the frequencies be divided between the two of us. We accept that, but Eutelsat is saying it wants all the frequencies.”
In a March 14 briefing with reporters here, de Rosen said: “The definition of what is an acceptable compromise may differ. People who know the facts know that the Iranian statements [on Zohreh-2’s orbital history] were disconnected from reality.”
Government and industry officials who have followed the Zohreh-2 drama say it has been complicated by the fact that neither Eutelsat nor Arabsat is acting entirely on its own account.
Arabsat must consider the position of its customer, Iran. Eutelsat is developing its Eutelsat 25B/Es’hail 1 satellite with Es’hailSat, the Qatar Satellite Co. Expected to weigh more than 6,000 kilograms at launch and to operate at 25.5 degrees east, the satellite is scheduled to be in orbit by mid-2013.
Several officials have said Arabsat has been defending the Iranian case with such determination because Iran is a shield that permits Arabsat to maintain use of frequencies it would otherwise lose to Eutelsat.
Under ITU rules of first-come, first-served, Iran registered frequencies before Eutelsat, but Eutelsat registered the frequencies before Arabsat.
Balkheyour did not contest this point, but said Arabsat is willing to enter direct negotiations with Eutelsat with the understanding that it alone will determine how to make peace with the Iranians.
“What I would like to avoid is that this becomes political,” Balkheyour said. “We have been surprised that Eutelsat is continuing full-speed with development of its satellite. I don’t know what will happen when it is launched, but negotiations might be easier if we leave it to our two companies.”