Iran Decision, British About-face Among Surprises at Radio Frequency Conclave

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PARIS — International radio frequency and orbital slot regulators have agreed to allow Iran access to an orbital slot for its planned Zohreh-1 telecommunications satellite despite the fact that Iran missed repeated deadlines for putting the satellite into use, according to a decision of the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC).

But the same WRC delegates who allowed Iran to return to the orbital slot also applauded an earlier decision by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that denied Iran access to the slot, at 34 degrees east longitude, because of the missed deadlines.

The WRC decision to readmit Zohreh-1 into the registry of permitted satellite systems, which several delegates were at a loss to explain, will almost certainly complicate the life of satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, which has spacecraft too close to the planned Zohreh-1 network to operate without interference. The two sides will need to engage in extensive negotiations that may undermine the business plan of one or the other, or both, depending on when Zohreh-1 is launched.

Eutelsat is already struggling with Iran’s Zohreh-2 satellite network at 26 degrees east, which is using a satellite owned by Arabsat of Saudi Arabia. Unless Iran or Saudi Arabia back off their current position, Eutelsat will have problems deploying a satellite it is building with the government of Qatar for an orbital slot that Eutelsat and Qatar had thought was rightfully theirs under ITU rules.

One industry official said it was likely that Eutelsat and Iran had reached at least a tentative compromise on how they would share frequency rights around 34 degrees east. This official said it was unclear whether the Zohreh-1 compromise might unblock the Zohreh-2 issue, which the ITU has been struggling to resolve for more than a year.

The quadrennial WRC meeting, which featured four weeks of occasionally intense discussions of frequencies and orbital slots by 3,000 delegates from 153 nations, concluded Feb. 17 by setting stronger rules about registering satellite systems and agreeing to reopen, at its next conference in 2015, the issue of whether International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) should be given access to spectrum now reserved for satellite networks.

It is an issue that satellite operators had hoped was definitively settled at the last WRC meeting, in 2007, when IMT proponents failed to win support for the broad use of C-band frequencies for satellite telecommunications.

The WRC delegates also agreed to extend, from two years to three, the amount of time a satellite operator has to replace a failed satellite in orbit or risk having its reservation revoked. Proponents of this move said it could take more than two years for an operator to finance, build and launch a replacement satellite.

The Zohreh-1 decision by the 153 nations represented at the four-week WRC conference in Geneva appeared to contradict another WRC decision setting a firm definition for what constitutes “bringing into use” a satellite network.

ITU regulators in the past have informally agreed to reject claims that a reserved orbital slot, and related frequencies, was operational if the satellite had not stayed there and operated for at least 90 days. The policy has been used to reject claims by several large satellite fleet operators that they should retain rights to an orbital slot just because they stationed a satellite there for a few days.

Major operators including SES of Luxembourg and Intelsat of Washington and Luxembourg, which together have about 100 satellites in orbit, had argued for a 30-day minimum, saying no serious satellite operator would waste the fuel needed to move and station a satellite at a given position only to move it again after 30 days.

That was not the opinion of the WRC delegates, and the result is that as of Jan. 1, 2013, no operator will be permitted to claim a slot unless its satellite has been stationed there for 90 days.

 

Britain’s About-face

The Zohreh-1 decision was not the biggest surprise of the WRC conference. That award might go to the delegation from the United Kingdom, which after years of spearheading moves to tighten the “bringing into use” policy made an about-face on or about Feb. 7, according to WRC delegates present at the meeting.

Led by Britain’s Ofcom telecommunications regulator, the U.K. contingent midway through the conference began to argue that there should be only a 15-day minimum-stay period, or perhaps even less, before a satellite was viewed as being “in use” at a given position.

In a Feb. 24 statement, Ofcom said it changed its position because “a shorter time would support fairer competition between satellite operators of different sizes — noting that the U.K. acts as the filing administration for 20 operators of varying sizes including those from British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, whereas a number of other administrations act for one large operator alone — and partly because a number of other regions came into WRC with strong proposals that didn’t specify any minimum … period.

“It very quickly became clear that there was insufficient support for this type of solution. The discussions focused down onto a minimum … period of 90 days at the end of the third week and we expressed support for this … solution once this had happened.”

The U.K. delegation issued a statement at the end of the conference saying that while it applauded the fact that the rules were now more clear, “these new provisions should not be allowed to negatively affect the interests of bona-fide satellite operators which brought into use satellite networks prior to WRC-12 in line with the practice at the time.”

“This Administration reserves the right to take such action as may be necessary to meet the needs of bona-fide satellite operators which brought into use satellite networks prior to WRC-12,” the U.K. delegation statement said.

Several officials attending the meeting said the U.K. delegation was acting on behalf of Avanti Communications of London, whose Hylas 1 satellite was launched in November 2010. Before arriving at its registered location at 33.5 degrees east, Hylas 1 — which is controlled in orbit by mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat of London — spent about a month at 61.5 degrees east, and 15 to 16 days at 31 degrees east.

Both these slots have been reserved by Avanti for follow-on satellites. Avanti has several reservations at both positions, but the ones presumed to be most advantageous to the company in terms of frequency assignments expire in May.

Avanti’s Hylas 2 is scheduled for launch in July. Hylas 3, which is a Ka-band payload aboard a satellite to be built for the European Space Agency by Astrium Services and used for a novel commercial data-relay business, is scheduled for launch in 2015. Avanti on Feb. 6 announced it had raised 73.8 million British pounds ($114 million) on the London stock market to cover the costs of Hylas 3.

Both satellites will arrive too late to use the Avanti ITU reservations expiring in May — unless the ITU makes an exception to the 90-day rule.

“Under the current ITU procedures, and given its denial of other systems that tried the same maneuver, the [Radiocommunication Bureau] would have no choice but to declare as invalid an attempt to preserve the reservations” that expire this May, an ITU expert said.

Avanti Investor Relations Director Sean Watherston said Feb. 10 that Avanti’s Hylas 2 and Hylas 3 satellites’ business plans are not threatened by the reservations expiring in May. He declined to disclose the intended orbital slots for the satellites. One official unaffiliated with Avanti said Hylas 3 was to be stationed at the 31 degrees east position.

If Avanti loses its May 2012 reservations, other satellite operators will move ahead of Avanti in the queue for access to the position. At or near 31 degrees east, these operators include SES and Eutelsat. In the 61.5 degrees neighborhood, Yahsat of the United Arab Emirates has reservations.

One official said Inmarsat protested the U.K.’s change of position to the point of withdrawing from the U.K. delegation during the WRC conference. Inmarsat officials declined to confirm this.

John Purvis, chief counsel for SES, whose satellite fleet includes orbital positions registered through the U.K., said the company “certainly didn’t support” the U.K. move. “Nor did most operators. It was disappointing that the U.K. chose to do that, and a shame that the U.K. didn’t support” the 90-day compromised approved by WRC.

Eutelsat Deputy Chief Executive Michel Azibert, in a Feb. 24 statement, agreed. “We were very surprised by the overnight, 180-degree change in the U.K. position,” he said. “We do not believe it was very effective.”

 

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