Jamming No Mere Nuisance for Middle East Satellite Operators

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WASHINGTON — The two biggest satellite fleet operators based in the Middle East said intentional jamming of their signals by regional governments seeking to suppress unfavorable news coverage has grown from a mere nuisance into a substantial business risk.

In separate comments made here during the Satellite 2012 conference the week of March 12, officials from Nilesat of Egypt and the 21-nation Arabsat consortium of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said the Arab Spring wave of civil uprisings has transformed jamming into a serious revenue-loss issue.

“It started with Libya and then moved to Bahrain, Iraq and Syria, Iran and other places,” Salah Hamza, chief technical officer for Nilesat, said. “We can play with power levels on our uplink and for awhile we succeeded in stopping it. But now the jammers are using higher-power amplifiers. They are getting more sophisticated.”

Hamza said March 14 that Nilesat programming on five satellite transponders carrying more than 60 television channels has been interrupted for varying lengths of time.

At one point, Hamza said, Nilesat decided to remove, one by one, the broadcasts from a given satellite in an attempt to determine which program was deemed offensive to the jammers. The company then could use diplomatic channels to resolve the issue.

But the tactic did not work. “For the past two months we have seen jamming from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. and it continued for a couple of days even after we had removed all the programming from the transponder,” Hamza said.

On some occasions, he said, Nilesat has been able to trace the source of the jamming with enough precision to use Google Maps to identify the antennas. “We can see the antennas doing the jamming,” he said.

Hamza said he was not optimistic that the United Nations regulatory body that oversees orbital slots and broadcast frequencies, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), will be able to stop the problem.

A senior ITU official responsible for satellite system coordination agreed with Hamza. Yvon Henri, chief of the space services department of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, said here March 13 that a recent meeting of ITU governments during the World Radiocommunication Conference in February could not agree on more than a tepid protest of jamming.

“The conference agreed that interference represents an infringement on the ITU convention and its regulations,” Henri said. “It concluded that member states have the obligation to take the necessary actions to stop it. Please don’t ask me what ‘necessary actions’ means. I asked our legal people and it basically comes down to a statement that it’s not good to jam your neighbor. Well, OK.”

Nilesat has refrained from publicly identifying the jamming sources on its own because it does not want to inflame the issue, Hamza said. It has limited its reaction to writing letters to the government suspected of sponsoring, or at least tolerating, the jamming.

Arabsat officials have reported similar events even though many of the suspected jammers are operating with the tolerance of governments that are Arabsat shareholders.

Arabsat Chief Executive Khalid A. Balkheyour said his company too has opted to maintain a low profile, using behind-the-scenes diplomacy without publicly naming the jamming sources. But the issue has become serious, he said.

One Arabsat official said efforts like those of the Space Data Association, a grouping of satellite operators organized in part to mitigate the problem of unintentional signal interference, are irrelevant when the signal disruptions are intentional.

“We hear all the time that 95 percent of signal interference is unintentional,” this official said. “That may be so, but the fact is that the 5 percent that is intentional is causing the majority of the jamming.

“We had one case where we moved a program that was being jammed to a transponder that was programming from the government we thought was responsible for the interference. We thought they would stop the interference at that point. But they didn’t care. They continued to jam even though they were interfering with their own broadcasts. Some of this is not rational.”

Hamza said Nilesat will be adding features on its next satellite to make jamming more difficult. “We will take measures so that signal uplinks can come only from spot beams,” as opposed to anywhere within the satellite’s coverage area, he said.

 

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