PARIS — The Iranian delegation to a conference of global satellite regulators has proposed to scrap the current system of assigning orbital positions and broadcast frequencies, saying the process is fraught with abuse and has an inherent bias against less-developed nations.

The proposal, which sent shockwaves through the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-12) being held in Geneva from Jan. 23 to Feb. 17, would put an end to a half-century of telecommunications satellite regulation, Iranian and other officials said Jan. 26.

In its place would be a set of procedures that a senior Iranian official conceded are still evolving. Iran’s first objective would be to revamp a system in which a single nation, sometimes acting on behalf of a single satellite operator, is able to lock up dozens of orbital positions for years, preventing others from developing them, even when the company in question has no real intention of placing satellites at the registered slots.

“We have had a case where one administration filed advance notification for 100 orbital slots,” said KavoussArasteh, senior adviser to Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. “A satellite costs up to $300 million to build and launch. Is it reasonable for a single administration to file notification for 100 slots?”

In an interview, Arasteh said Iran does not pretend to have a “detailed blueprint” for what system should replace the current procedures, whose weaknesses have been known for years. But the current regulations, he said, have failed to keep up with the fast-growing satellite telecommunications industry.

A regulatory official with a major Western satellite operator said his company and others are warily looking at other nations to see how the Iranian proposal develops. “We hear the drumbeat, but we don’t yet know what it’s saying,” this official said.

“The regulatory system we now have was developed in the 1960s,” Arasteh said. “Since then, we have been making piecemeal additions laterally and vertically without changing the structure — advance publication, notification, get in the queue, and then seek coordination on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Our proposal calls for a completely new structure — a general overhaul of the entire procedure” that Iran wants embedded in the next WRC conference, scheduled for 2015. Much of WRC-12 is devoted to planning for this next conference.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based United Nations organization, regulates how satellite orbital positions and broadcast frequencies are reserved and developed.

The ITU’s Master International Frequency Register records nations’ notices of their intent to develop a satellite network. Other nations, representing government or commercial satellite operators, are notified of these intentions.

Depending on how many other filings exist in the master register for the same orbital slot and frequencies, the notifying nation is placed in a queue. The queue is established on a first-come, first-served basis — earlier filers have priority, regardless of whether they have any real intention of developing the system in question.

Arasteh, a well-known expert in ITU matters who was chairman of the WRC-2007 Conference Preparatory Meeting, said the result is that what is considered a global commons — orbital positions and broadcast frequencies — has been legally hijacked by a few nations.

Continuing with his example of one nation or company reserving 100 geostationary orbital slots, Arasteh said this obviously unfeasible reservation can nonetheless lock up these slots for up to seven years. During that time, other nations would not be able to build their own networks at these orbital positions.

“During this seven-year period, many other proposed networks would be deleted [from the master register] because they were unable to satisfy the ITU’s due-diligence requirements,” Arasteh said. “This is what happens to someone arriving at the end of the queue. Go to your bankers or creditors and tell them you are seventh in line for access to a given slot. Of course you will not get financing.”

In an attempt to eliminate what it calls “paper satellites” that companies use to warehouse orbital slots with no intention of using them, the ITU has put into place a modest due-diligence requirement wherein a satellite owner, through his national administration, must demonstrate that a given satellite is in fact being built.

Evidence of manufacturing or launch contracts is sometimes required. In fact, the ITU has acknowledged that its due-diligence procedures are not systematically enforced, and that there are multiple stalling techniques to get around them.

The ITU also asks operators for notification when they are “bringing into use” their networks. But “bringing into use” is itself a subject of abuse by some operators, which is why WRC-12 delegates are being asked to consider how to prevent phantom satellites — meaning satellites that are recorded in the ITU master register as operational but do not exist.

Iran itself is embroiled in controversy on this very issue over its Zohreh-2 satellite system. Tehran claims it fulfilled the requirement for bringing that system into use by broadcasting via satellites owned by satellite operators Eutelsat and Intelsat, but both companies deny this is the case.

ITU experts have asked WRC-12 delegates to consider how to tighten the definition of “bringing into use” to permit a more efficient use of the global frequency resource. A satellite could be required to stay at its assigned slot for several days, a month or three months, for example.

Arasteh said any attempt to fix a minimum standard for what constitutes “bringing into use” likely would make it easier, not more difficult, for a satellite operator to game the regulatory system.

“Let’s say there is an obligation to bring into use for a month,” Arasteh said. “That would mean there is no obligation beyond a month. The operator could move the satellite and bring another network into use with the same spacecraft. A month later, the satellite can be moved to ‘bring into use’ still another network, and so on so that by the end of a year, the same satellite has satisfied the requirements for 12 orbital slots. That means one satellite is preventing 12 other networks from coming into service.”

Arasteh said the issue of trust among nations using satellite frequencies is indispensable to the smooth development of satellite telecommunications, whose importance can be measured by the number of nations — even among the least developed — that have launched their own satellites in recent years.

“This trust has been eroded in recent years because of the excessive competition in the use of satellites and the consequent warehousing of slots,” he said. “What we are saying is that we should go much beyond the procedural approach we have taken up to now.”



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.