It might well be the commercial satellite industry’s least favorite topic to discuss in public, but the problem of intentional signal tampering is not going away. If anything, it appears to be getting worse as satellite services and the technical wherewithal to jam or hijack them proliferate worldwide.
In the latest of several such incidents reported recently, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan separatist group that is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, appropriated an unused Intelsat satellite transponder to broadcast its own programming into the south Asian country. Whether or not the group had outside assistance is not clear. What is clear is that those doing the pirating are a technically savvy bunch: Intelsat was not even aware of the trespass until it received a letter from the Sri Lankan government demanding an explanation for the bandit broadcasts.
This incident had a troubling twist in the behavior of Eutelsat, a satellite operator that competes with Intelsat in Asia and elsewhere but also leases capacity on the satellite whose signal was hijacked. Intelsat had hoped to thwart the intruders by redirecting the satellite beam they were using away from Sri Lanka. Because doing so would necessarily disrupt legitimate customers, Intelsat asked the affected parties if it could shift them to different beams or satellites offering the same coverage. One of the two customers agreed to make the switch immediately; Eutelsat, for reasons the company has yet to explain, insisted on the full 30 days notice to which it is contractually entitled.
Satellite-signal tampering is everybody’s problem, not just Intelsat’s. Surely Eutelsat, which could be the next victim just as easily as anyone else, understands that it should be doing everything it can to fight this problem wherever and whenever it crops up. In this case, it appears that Eutelsat — whether for competitive or other reasons — shirked its responsibility to the industry at large.
Meanwhile, all satellite operators must come to grips with and address the vulnerability of their systems. When governments are doing or sanctioning the tampering, there is the chance that they can be persuaded to stop, as happened when Libya was found to be the source of interference to the Thuraya mobile satellite phone system. Non-state actors like the Tamil Tigers and China’s dissident Falun Gong movement — which has overridden AsiaSat satellite signals to broadcast its own message into China — cannot be dissuaded by diplomacy. Their actions have demonstrated to other grievance and outlaw groups around the world that satellite-signal piracy is a viable means of waging political and economic warfare.
In light of Eutelsat’s less than exemplary citizenship, it appears that satellite operators would benefit from some sort of negotiated framework under which they would help one another out — through contract flexibility, the provision of capacity or technical assistance — when one is the victim of deliberate tampering.
These companies also need to get serious about proactive measures, such as including nulling antennas on their satellites. One U.S. hardware manufacturer, EMS Technologies Inc., says it has developed an antenna under contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense that could protect commercial satellites without breaking the banks of their owners. Although the EMS system is still expensive at $10 million to $20 million, satellite operators must now weigh that against the revenues and business opportunities lost not just to tampering but also to the threat thereof.
These costs are real: in the case of Thuraya, the jamming went on for six months, cutting into the company’s 2006 revenues. Meanwhile, signal vulnerability is a threat to business with the industry’s biggest single customer: the Department of Defense. The issue is regularly raised by military officials leery of their current heavy reliance on commercial satellites.
It seems highly unlikely that the U.S. military will be able to wean itself from its commercial dependence anytime soon. At the same time, however, the Pentagon has been reluctant to make the long-term funding commitments that satellite operators say they need to justify investments in military-specific capabilities — including signal protection.
One possibility for bridging the gulf is a program in which government — not necessarily limited to the United States — and industry jointly fund research into competing low-cost anti-tampering technologies. Such an arrangement might be accompanied by a shared commitment to provide enough business for one or two suppliers to get unit prices down to a commercially affordable level. As the world’s biggest commercial satellite operators, Intelsat and SES Global could take the lead on industry’s behalf.
The larger point is that industry can no longer sweep the satellite tampering problem under a rug. Including anti-jam equipment on commercial satellites has always been a question of affordability. It still is, only now it can be couched somewhat differently: Can satellite operators afford not to?