Editorial: The ITU Defers, Again

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has missed yet another opportunity to demonstrate its resolve to keep order in the increasingly congested — and contested — geostationary-orbit arc, where most communications satellites are located.

For the third time in just over a year, the ITU’s Radio Regulations Board failed to resolve a dispute over an Iranian satellite service whose legitimacy is in serious doubt. France and the United States argue that Iran’s Zohreh-2 service has not met the continuous-service requirements of its ITU registration. Iran says it broadcast the service during the two-year period in question via French- and U.S.-registered satellites operated by Eutelsat and Intelsat, respectively, but the companies deny this and they ought to know; even the Radio Regulations Board doubts Tehran’s claim.

Eutelsat is building a satellite intended to operate near the Zohreh-2 service — currently hosted by an Arabsat satellite at 26 degrees east longitude — as part of a joint venture with Qatar. Failure to resolve the dispute leaves the prospect that the ictQatar satellite, slated for launch in 2013, will face interference from Zohreh-2 once on orbit.

More broadly, the ITU’s indecision raises doubts about its commitment and ability to maximize the world’s use of two increasingly scarce resources: radio-frequency bandwidth and space along the geostationary arc.

The Zohreh-2 controversy is different from the situation with ICO-P, a planned constellation of 12 S-band communications satellites in medium Earth orbit that has gone nowhere since the launch of the first satellite a decade ago. ICO in recent years has proved more effective in obstructing government efforts to encourage other companies to develop S-band services.

ICO-P’s government sponsor, the British Office of Communications, or Ofcom, recently petitioned the ITU to strike the system from its frequency registry, but was able to do so only after several years of legal wrangling with the company. In the meantime, ICO leveraged its ITU registry to stall the European Commission’s effort to jump-start a European mobile satellite service using S-band frequencies.

Given ICO’s chronic inability to make measurable progress in bringing its system into service — contrary to the company’s arguments, a single satellite in a non-geostationary orbit does not constitute a viable service — the ITU should have little problem honoring Ofcom’s request. One of the problems with the Zohreh-2 case is that Tehran continues to advocate for that system, and the ITU does not have unambiguous authority to disregard the word, no matter how dubious, of a sovereign nation. There obviously is no such problem with ICO-P.

The ITU has instructed the parties in the Zohreh-2 dispute to try again to hash out a compromise, which has eluded them to date, with a vague warning that somebody’s registration could be revoked. But it appears that the international regulatory body is resigned to referring the matter to the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) scheduled to begin in late January. This is a meeting of national and international telecommunications authorities held every three or four years to allocate frequencies among the various services, both terrestrial and satellite.

If the WRC attendees can impose a settlement, one that rewards compliance with ITU rules, then Eutelsat and its Qatari partner should be able to inaugurate their service without fear of interference. But the larger problem, the ITU’s apparent lack of will or authority to enforce its own rules, remains. WRC meetings do not occur often enough to serve as a mechanism for policing geostationary orbit. This is a critical role the ITU must figure out how to play.