France Seeks ITU Help To Halt Satellite Signal Jamming by Iran

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PARIS — French regulators have asked the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to intervene with the Iranian government to persuade Tehran to stop jamming satellite signals from the BBC World Service’s Persian-language broadcasts into Iran, according to the director of France’s National Frequencies Agency (ANF).

ANF Director Francois Rancy said the appeal to the ITU was made the first week of January only after numerous French requests to Iran to stop the interference went unanswered over the past seven months.

Rancy, a veteran international-frequency regulator who chaired the ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference in late 2007, said that while he hoped ITU pressure would affect Iran’s behavior, he was not counting on an immediate stop to the practice.

“The ITU is really a gentlemen’s club,” Rancy said in a Jan. 5 interview. “It depends on the goodwill of its members. There is no mechanism for forcing an administration into compliance with the rules.”

The Geneva-based ITU is a United Nations affiliate that regulates satellite and other wireless communications frequencies and satellite orbital slots. In recent years it has regularly tried, without success, to get the U.S. government to stop jamming legal radio and television broadcasts from Cuba, which the ITU says is done with low-flying aircraft operating in international airspace.

In another example, Slovenian television broadcasters and the ITU have sought to stop Italian broadcasters from overstepping their frequency assignments with signal transmissions that interfere with Slovenian broadcasts. According to ITU documents, Slovenian regulators sent more than 200 reports to Italy citing interference, saying Italy was using frequencies that had not been coordinated with its neighbors.

In both these cases, the alleged offending administrations — the United States and Italy — have all but refused to acknowledge the ITU requests.

The BBC Persian programming carried on the Eutelsat Hot Bird 6 satellite stationed at 13 degrees east was jammed starting last spring during Iran’s elections, and it has continued intermittently ever since, particularly during the broadcaster’s coverage of the death of a reformist Iranian cleric.

An official with Paris-based Eutelsat acknowledged that locating the source of frequency interference is often difficult. But in this case, Eutelsat contacted other satellite operators to compare notes about broadcasts in the region and performed tests over an extended period of time, and concluded that the jamming signals were coming from Iranian territory.

The Eutelsat official said one way of determining whether interference is intentional or accidental is to move the affected programming to another transponder on the satellite to see whether the jamming then stops.

Once it is determined beyond a reasonable doubt that the interference was coming from Iran, Eutelsat contacted ANF, which then contacted Iran in multiple letters sent since mid-2009, Rancy said.

For the BBC, a solution to the problem is likely to involve using replacement capacity on Eutelsat satellites whose beams make it impossible for Iranian authorities to uplink interference to the satellite. The BBC in recent months has shifted its programming to Eutelsat capacity on the Telstar 12 satellite at 15 degrees west, a location that relieves the jamming but also makes it difficult for the BBC’s Iranian audience to capture the satellite’s downlink.

The British broadcaster has also used Eutelsat’s W2M satellite at 3.1 degrees west, which offers a better signal-reception angle for Iranian dish antennas but features a narrow beam whose uplink cannot be accessed from Iranian soil, the Eutelsat official said.

“There are no easy and definitive solutions,” the Eutelsat official said. “But when we can, we can move programming to a satellite whose location makes it impossible for jammers in a given location to target the satellite.”

BBC World Service did not respond to requests for comment about whether the use of other satellites will provide a permanent solution to the problem or whether the broadcast audience will be sharply reduced as viewers need to repoint their rooftop antennas to the new satellites.

In a Dec. 21 statement following a fresh round of Hot Bird 6 jamming that started Dec. 20, the broadcaster said: “The BBC is looking at ways to increase the options for its Farsi-speaking audiences in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which may include broadcasting on other satellites.”