Editorial: ITU Shell Games

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The controversy surrounding Iran’s Zohreh-2 satellite service underscores the need for more transparency in the way the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) coordinates satellite orbital slots and radio frequencies and enforces rules designed to maximize the use of these increasingly scarce resources.

Iran’s flouting of ITU regulations is unique only in its brazenness; for years, countries — including the United States and in Europe — have quietly taken advantage of the  U.N. affiliate’s predisposition to give satellite operators the benefit of the doubt when their progress in deploying a registered service comes into question. This can no longer be tolerated as the geostationary orbit arc becomes increasingly crowded, driven by global demand that shows little sign of abating.

Iran has effectively shattered the limits of credibility with claims that Zohreh-2 has been operating in compliance with ITU rules. The rules stipulate, among other things, that an ITU-registered satellite service cannot be suspended for more than two years without facing a compliance review. Iran has not built a Zohreh-2 satellite; currently, the service is carried aboard a satellite owned by the Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat consortium.

Iran says the service over the years has been carried aboard other satellites to stay in compliance. Specifically, Tehran claims Zohreh-2 was hosted by Intelsat’s PAS 5 and Eutelsat’s Eurobird 2 satellites. Saudi Arabia, on behalf of Arabsat, backed the latter claim, saying it sublet capacity aboard Eurobird 2 to Iran for the service.

Intelsat and Eutelsat deny their satellites were used for the service, or at least disavow any knowledge that this was happening. Eutelsat is in a joint venture with Qatar to launch the ictQatar satellite to an orbital slot where it is likely to encounter interference from the Arabsat satellite that currently carries the Ku-band Zohreh-2 service.

The government of France, acting on Eutelsat’s behalf, in July asked the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau to review the Zohreh-2 license. The bureau found Iran’s claims to be bogus, but because it was hesitant to challenge the word of a sovereign nation it asked its supervisory body, the Radio Regulations Board (RRB), to endorse its judgment at a December meeting.

For reasons that are unclear, the U.S. representative to the RRB sided with Iran, arguing that the ITU, in effect, has no authority to declare a nation to be in breach of ITU rules when that nation says otherwise — even if the country cannot produce solid evidence to back its claim. Much to the surprise of observers with a stake in the ITU satellite coordination process, the RRB accepted that argument in a closed-door session and Iran was allowed to maintain its Zohreh-2 registration.

The U.S. representative, Julie N. Zoller, who now chairs the RRB, has declined to elaborate on her reasons for siding with Iran despite compelling evidence that it violated ITU rules. Ms. Zoller has some explaining to do. So does Arabsat for claiming it leased capacity aboard a Eutelsat satellite — apparently unbeknownst to the European operator — to Iran.

Prodded by the United States and France — backed by documentation from Intelsat and Eutelsat saying they never authorized the use of their satellites for the Zohreh-2 service — and by Qatar, the RRB agreed to reconsider the matter in a recent meeting. Because the United States is now a party to the dispute, Ms. Zoller recused herself from the proceedings. The board’s decision was to hand the issue back to the Radiocommunication Bureau while asking France and Iran to seek a compromise, something Eutelsat sees as unlikely.

The bureau was instructed to report its findings at a July meeting. Barring fresh evidence supporting Tehran’s Zohreh-2 claims, the RRB will be hard pressed to continue backing Iran’s position. The question is what it will do about the situation.

The ITU for years has been flooded with reservations for satellite systems that are unlikely to ever be built. These so-called paper satellites often serve a purpose to those who register them, such as preserving an option or preventing a competitor from gaining a foothold in a particular market. The effect they have is to clog the ITU system and impede the introduction of new services.

The RRB has already said Zohreh-2 will not take priority over ictQatar, whose satellite is under construction by Space Systems/Loral. But with the telecommunications world watching, the ITU come July has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is serious about addressing the paper satellite problem and the abuse of its rules in general, and revoke Iran’s Zohreh-2 license. A failure to do so would undermine any future attempts to clean up the process.