From Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co. of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, comes disturbing news that signals from its regional mobile satellite phone system were subjected to intentional interference that began early this year and ended only recently.
The jamming, the source of which remains unclear, was halted via diplomatic pressure, indicating that it was being carried out at least with the tacit approval of a government.
This revelation comes after Israeli defense officials publicly expressed frustration at their inability to prevent Hezbollah satellite television broadcasts from reaching viewers during Israel’s recent four-month campaign to roust the Islamist group’s fighters from southern Lebanon. These officials expressed interest in being able to block such broadcasts, which could entail tampering in some way with the commercially operated satel lites that carry Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV network.
This is not to say that these two developments are connected, or that Israel was behind the Thuraya interference. It does not take a state actor to tamper with commercial satellites, as members of the dissident Falun Gong movement in China demonstrated recently when they were able to superimpose their own programming over signals broadcast over the AsiaSat satellite system.
The point is that purposeful interference with commercial satellites appears to be a growing problem, one that must be addressed in a serious way. All law-abiding governments have a stake in upholding the international understanding that satellites properly coordinated through the United Nations-affiliated International Telecommunication Union be allowed to operate free from interference, purposeful or otherwise. It is therefore incumbent upon responsible governments to take whatever actions necessary to prevent satellite pirates from operating within their national borders, and to apply pressure on states that might be engaging in or condoning such activity.
It is well known among the technically savvy that jamming a commercial satellite is a relatively easy thing to do. It also is no secret that commercial satellites are a vital link in the global telecommunications infrastructure, critical for commerce, diplomacy and protecting the public safety. Deliberately interfering with them is an outlaw act, one that puts livelihoods and lives at risk. Moreover, it brings more visibility to the importance and vulnerability of satellites, making them increasingly inviting as targets for international troublemakers.
For any nation to be seen either engaging in or condoning satellite piracy does no good to its long-term interests. Besides, governments have tools short of jamming at their disposal to deal with satellite operators who broadcast programming that they find patently offensive. For example, some operators already have yielded to diplomatic pressure and stopped carrying the Al Manar network, which the U.S. State Department placed on its Terrorist Exclusion List in December 2004.
Clearly we are only seeing the beginning of this problem. As conflicts escalate it is certain to grow to the extent that vigilance and diplomacy will only be a partial solution. It therefore is high time that industry and governments redouble their efforts to find technical countermeasures that protect commercial satellites without breaking the banks of the companies that operate them.