PARIS — International regulators on Nov. 4 again failed to resolve a satellite frequency dispute pitting France, Qatar and satellite operator Eutelsat against Iran, Saudi Arabia and operator Arabsat, setting the stage for a likely showdown in January at a global conference of telecom authorities.

Meeting in Geneva Oct. 31-Nov. 4, the Radio Regulations Board of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) proved powerless to settle an issue that radio frequency experts say could snowball into a threat to the ITU’s ability to manage development of the geostationary orbital arc and the broadcast frequencies used there.

At issue is whether the government of Iran misled the ITU by saying its Zohreh-2 satellite network maintained its regulatory eligibility in past years by being temporarily hosted on U.S.- and French-registered satellites. The service is now being hosted by Arabsat, a major satellite consortium headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, using a satellite located at 26 degrees east longitude.

U.S. and French officials have denied that Iran used satellites registered in their countries — operated by Intelsat and Eutelsat, respectively — to host Zohreh-2. That being the case, they argue, Zohreh-2 spent more than two years without being in service and thus should be stricken from the ITU’s master registry of satellites granted regulatory priority.

Paris-based Eutelsat’s Eurobird 2 satellite, in orbit at 25.5 degrees east, is right next door to the Arabsat Badr spacecraft hosting Iran and has been unable to fulfill its mission because of uncertainty about Iran’s frequency rights. Arabsat has said Zohreh-2 has been in service, first on the Badr-6 satellite and, since mid-2010, on Badr-5.

Eutelsat has also struck an agreement with the government of Qatar to launch a Eurobird 2A satellite into the 25.5 degrees east slot in 2013. Eutelsat and Qatar’s Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology, ictQatar, have urged the ITU to reject Iran’s claims so that the Eutelsat-Qatar project will be able to operate.

Iran, which over the years has struggled to establish an Iranian satellite network and thus has lost rights it once had to certain satellite broadcast frequencies, insists that it maintained its Zohreh-2 eligibility on the Intelsat and Eutelsat spacecraft.

The Radio Regulations Board has reviewed the issue on at least three occasions. At first, invoking an ITU principle that says the word of a sovereign nation describing its own network cannot be challenged, the board sided with Iran. Faced with subsequent statements from the United States and France, the board backed off its endorsement of Zohreh-2 but did not issue a clear judgment, leaving both sides in limbo. The ITU repeatedly has asked France, Iran and Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences among themselves.

Multiple meetings hosted by the ITU have produced no discernible progress, government and industry officials said.

At the meeting ending Nov. 4, the Radio Regulations Board floated the idea of a compromise that would divide the disputed frequencies equally: half for Iran and Saudi Arabia, and half for Eutelsat.

“As a matter of compromise and considering the exceptional situation, the Board suggests that this coordination might be pursued by splitting into two equal parts” the frequencies, the board said in a post-meeting summary.

The board went so far as to threaten, if vaguely, to banish one or more of the satellite networks involved if no resolution is reached.

“The Board noted that the analysis provided by the [Radiocommunication Bureau, an ITU body that makes technical analyses] casts doubts as to the continuity of service of some of the satellite networks involved, which may lead to the deletion of the corresponding satellite network filings,” the summary states.

One industry official said that while the board possesses such authority, it would be unprecedented for it to act in this way, especially since it has spent two years looking at the dispute without acting.

As it has in the past, the board requested that the parties involved meet to work out their differences in December. Absent any progress, it said, it will instruct the director of the Radiocommunication Bureau to report the failure to the World Radiocommunication Conference scheduled for Jan. 23-Feb. 17 in Geneva.

The conference, which occurs every three or four years, brings together the world’s wireless telecommunications regulators to allocate radio frequencies among competing users.

Satellite operators that spend most of their time competing with Eutelsat — including SES of Luxembourg, which has its own development plans with ictQatar — have backed the Paris operator and said if Iran is allowed to retain its frequencies, the regulatory foundation of the entire satellite telecommunications industry will be shaken.



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Iran’s Claims About Satellite Service Try International Regulatory Regime

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