PARIS — The international body that regulates satellite orbital slots and broadcast frequencies is facing what some officials have called its worst-ever crisis as it grapples with a question it is not sure it can answer: Can regulators refuse to accept the word of a sovereign nation about its own assets even when they are convinced it is lying?
Over the last five months, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based global satellite and wireless-frequency regulator, has been vexed by what numerous officials agree are extraordinary claims by the government of Iran regarding its Zohreh-2 telecommunications satellite system.
Like other requests to reserve satellite slots and broadcast frequencies, the Zohreh-2 filing was given deadlines by which the system had to be put into service. Failure to meet these deadlines, or to maintain service continuity, raises the threat that the reservation will be canceled. This is especially true for Ku-band satellites in crowded regions of the geostationary orbital arc. The orbital neighborhood of around 26 degrees east longitude, which is ideal for covering the Middle East, is one of those regions.
In July, the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau was asked to review Zohreh-2, which had not been broadcasting on a satellite of its own, but rather via a satellite operated at 26 degrees east by the Arabsat consortium of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
July was also the month that Eutelsat, the Paris-based commercial satellite operator, announced a joint venture with ictQatar, representing the State of Qatar, for a Ku- and Ka-band satellite to be launched in 2013 and operated at 25.5 degrees east — right next door to the Arabsat-carried Zohreh-2 system, and too close for both to freely use their planned Ku-band frequencies.
Acting through the French Agence Nationale des Frequences, or National Frequencies Agency — only governments communicate officially with the ITU — Eutelsat said the Zohreh-2 network had not met its regulatory deadlines and should be expelled from the ITU’s list of approved systems. Notably, the French regulator said that while Zohreh-2 was registered before the Eutelsat-Qatari satellite, Zohreh-2 had failed to operate its service for a period exceeding the two-year limit imposed by ITU rules.
Saudi Arabia, on behalf of Arabsat, said a previous Arabsat lease of capacity on a Eutelsat satellite had included a sublease to Iran for Zohreh-2 for part of the time France said Zohreh-2 was not functioning.
France denied this was the case, and said ITU rules prohibit a nation from bringing its own system into use in this way, especially given that France had not accepted that its own regulatory filing be used in this way.
The Iranian claim also involved the United States: The Iranian Ministry of Information and Communications Technology alleged that, before it used the Eutelsat Eurobird-2 satellite, it had begun operating Zohreh-2 on the PAS-5 satellite owned by Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, and licensed by the U.S. government.
The Radiocommunication Bureau refused to accept the Iranian argument, but was uncomfortable dismissing the word of a nation state about its own satellite system. It asked its supervisory body, the Radio Regulations Board (RRB), to endorse its decision at its December meeting.
At that point, companies and organizations that had the most to gain by a validation of the Radiocommunication Board’s ruling apparently took their eyes off the ball, according to government and industry officials involved in the matter.
“They thought this was the end of the story,” said an official with one of the governments involved. “There was no indication otherwise.”
An unexpected champion
The RRB met in Geneva the week of Nov. 29-Dec. 3. Several of its 12 members were late arriving at one or more sessions because of heavy snow, a factor one of them said may have cut short the debate.
What transpired during the RRB sessions that week is unclear. Much of the decision-making at meetings like this is done in the corridors as delegates talk informally.
The minutes of the meeting show that the Iranian position had support from an unexpected quarter in the person of Julie N. Zoller of the United States, a former RRB chairwoman and vice chairwoman.
RRB representatives are elected by their home regions, but once on the board they are supposed to represent the broader interests of the global community in maximizing fair use of the finite global resources that are radio frequencies and geostationary orbital positions.
“She is not there as ‘the U.S. representative,’” said one official with long experience at the ITU. “All RRB members are supposed to be deciding based on the general interest of efficient use of spectrum and orbital positions.”
According to the minutes, Zoller sided with the Iranians regarding the argument that a nation’s solemn word cannot be challenged by the ITU. Zoller also said Iran had met certain ITU requirements in preparing its defense, whereas others say Iran had repeatedly refused to respond to Radiocommunication Bureau inquiries.
Zoller went further, drafting for the RRB proposed language saying that under ITU rules, “cancellation of the Zohreh-2 satellite network … requires the agreement of the Administration of Iran as notifying administration, and the Administration of Iran disagreed.”
Zoller was referring to ITU’s Radio Regulations, and specifically to section 13.6, which reads in part: “Whenever it appears from reliable information that [a satellite system] has not been brought into regular operation in accordance with the notified characteristics … or is not being used in accordance with those characteristics, the Bureau shall consult the notifying administration and, subject to its agreement, or in the event of non-response,” may remove the network from ITU’s registry.
The RRB agreed, and voted to let Iran’s Zohreh-2 network retain its regulatory priority.
“What happened here pulls the rug out from a decade of work by the ITU in trying to clean up the satellite telecommunications sector,” said one official. “Basically, you’re saying that the Radiocommunication Bureau cannot act against the most flagrant declarations about what is going on in orbit if a nation is making the statements. If you want chaos in the orbital arc, this is what you do.”
Zoller declined March 22, and again April 7, to comment on the December board meeting and her role in it, saying the meeting’s minutes should speak for themselves. She has since been elected chairwoman of the RRB for a one-year term.
Speculation about how the RRB came to its decision has been rampant since December, with officials speaking darkly — and without proof — about U.S. Defense Department intervention, even though the ITU has long-established procedures for protecting national security assets.
For those whose attention had been diverted from the ITU since the July decision, the RRB ruling in December had the effect of an alarm.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, backed by a sworn statement from Intelsat Chief Counsel Phillip L. Spector, informed the ITU in March that the PAS-5 satellite was never authorized to host the Iranian Zohreh-2 system.
In fact, PAS-5 was never authorized to operate at its position at 26.13 degrees east in Ku-band at all except for telemetry and command functions. It was not licensed to serve customers in Ku-band, where Iran said Zohreh-2 was operating, but only in C-band.
Steven W. Lett, deputy U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department, on March 4 filed a statement to the Radiocommunication Bureau saying, in effect, that the Iranian claim was false.
The French regulatory agency did likewise. Alexandre Vallet, head of regulatory affairs and orbit and spectrum resources at the Agence Nationale des Frequences, affirmed to the RRB in several documents, notably on March 24, that Eutelsat never transferred operational control of its Eurobird-2 satellite to Arabsat, and never accepted an Iranian sublease for Zohreh-2. Eurobird-2 is located at 25.8 degrees east.
The French statement reiterated that Zohreh-2 went for more than three years without being in regular operation and that its ITU approval should be canceled.
Qatar, its $300 million co-investment with Eutelsat now facing a serious threat, also weighed in with the RRB.
With these three governments seeking a review, the RRB agreed to take up the issue again at its March 28-April 1 meeting. Officials familiar with the ITU said the decision to take a second look at an RRB decision is rare — especially in this case since seven of the 12 members of the new RRB were not members during the December meeting.
The Saudi and Iranian administrations sought to convince the new RRB that the French, U.S. and Qatari appeals brought no information beyond what the old board debated in December. That being the case, they said, no second review was needed. The Iranian delegation to the ITU did not respond to requests for comment.
Because the United States is one of the governments asking for a review, Zoller was obliged under RRB rules not to get involved in the debate. One official said she appeared to follow this practice “to the letter, which not all RRB members do all the time.”
Eutelsat, in what officials said was an unusual move, set up a data room in Geneva to permit RRB members to read the full text of the Eutelsat contract with Arabsat. Iran and Saudi Arabia had alleged that this contract included Eutelsat’s agreement to allow its satellite to be used for Zohreh-2.
Two officials said the RRB only reluctantly agreed to take a second look at the issue. Its decision was to return the debate to the Radiocommunication Bureau, and to ask France and Iran to seek a compromise. It asked the bureau to report its conclusions in July, at the RRB’s next meeting.
Meanwhile, the RRB said, the Zohreh-2 network would not be given priority over the Eutelsat-Qatari system, which in any event is not yet in orbit.
Jean-Paul Brillaud, deputy chief executive of Eutelsat, said April 7 that Eutelsat will make a good-faith effort to find a solution with Iran, perhaps by expanding the discussion to include other orbital slots where Iran has ITU rights but has yet to place a satellite.
“The chance of our coming to a compromise on this is fairly low,” Brillaud said. “But the more important point, beyond my company’s obvious interest in our satellite system with Qatar, is that if the Iranian position is left to stand, the legal foundation for everything we satellite operators do in orbit basically collapses.”
Weighing in at the ITU
The Iranian government’s claim that it began operations of its Zohreh-2 telecommunications satellite network using commercial satellites licensed by U.S. and French regulators has set into motion a host of companies and government agencies. Here is a list of players:
- Radio Regulations Board (RRB): This is the highest-ranking decision-making body at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) aside from the ITU’s quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference. The ITU, a United Nations affiliate, regulates satellite orbital slots and wireless communications frequencies.
- Radiocommunication Bureau: This technical advisory body handles most of the issues on satellite licenses, acting on authority from the RRB.
- Islamic Republic of Iran, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology: This ministry has been the RRB’s principal interlocutor for the Zohreh-2 affair.
- Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The Saudi government has been acting on behalf of Arabsat, a commercial satellite operator that has leased capacity to Iran under the Zohreh-2 appellation.
- Agence Nationale des Frequences: This is France’s frequency regulator, which is the nation’s lead agency for contact with the ITU. It acts on behalf of satellite fleet operator Eutelsat.
- State of Qatar: The Qatari government has been acting on behalf of ictQatar, whose joint venture with Eutelsat has contracted for a satellite to be launched in 2013 into the 25.5 degrees east orbital slot. The Zohreh-2 system as currently operated would interfere with ictQatar’s Ku-band transmissions.
- U.S. Department of State: The State Department has become involved in the Zohreh-2 debate because Iran has claimed that a U.S.-registered satellite, PAS-5, was used by Iran to begin the in-orbit service of Zohreh-2. PAS-5 is owned by Intelsat.