The world’s four largest commercial satellite fleet operators called on global radio frequency authorities to tighten rules on satellite interference and the abuse of satellite slot and frequency reservations, saying the regulatory body in charge of maintaining orbital order — the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — lacks the necessary will or power.

With a view to the next ITU World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), a quadrennial meeting of global wireless-frequency authorities scheduled Jan. 23-Feb. 17 in Geneva, the chief executives of companies accounting for around two-thirds of global commercial satellite bandwidth all said the current regulatory system needs reform.

Among the issues likely to be discussed at the upcoming conference is a dispute between France and Qatar on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other, over Iran’s use of an Arabsat satellite to operate what was supposed to be Iran’s own Zohreh-2 satellite network.

Iran has claimed its Zohreh-2 reservation remains valid because it used the reserved frequencies within ITU rules. France and Qatar argue that Iran went more than two years without using the frequencies, and that the bandwidth should therefore be returned to the ITU for the network that was next in line.

That network is based on a satellite that Paris-based Eutelsat is planning for the ictQatar venture with Qatar. The satellite, which is under construction, cannot co-exist with Iran’s use of the same frequencies on the Arabsat satellite.

Iran claims that its Zohreh-2 reservation was kept alive by Iran’s use of a satellite owned by Washington- and Luxembourg-based Intelsat, and subsequently by one of Eutelsat’s own satellites. Intelsat and Eutelsat have denied this, but the ITU body looking into the issue has hesitated to deny Iran’s claim. ITU rules generally oblige the organization to accept the word of a nation that is talking about its own system.

Eutelsat officials have said they will ask the French delegation to raise the issue at the upcoming WRC if it is not resolved before then.

Eutelsat’s principal European competitor, SES of Luxembourg, has cut its own deal with Qatar and as such may have an interest in seeing Eutelsat’s project with Qatar run into difficulty.

But SES Chief Executive Romain Bausch said his company is actively backing Eutelsat and France because of the importance of the regulatory issue involved.

“The answer is a clear ‘Yes,’” Bausch said Sept. 13 when asked if SES and Luxembourg would back Eutelsat and France at the WRC. “We need clear rules on what ‘bringing into service’ a satellite network means.

“Today there are different rules and no clear standard,” Bausch said. “Some [satellite operators] have claimed they have brought a satellite into service when in fact they have no satellite at the orbital slot. It’s not just Iran. Some quite large operators have brought a network into service because they had a satellite passing by, but it never even stopped” at the registered slot.

For Bausch, a key issue is determining, in clear regulatory language, how long a satellite must operate at a position before the network must be judged as having been brought into service.

“Some say 90 days, some say fewer,” Bausch said. “We would favor a shorter time.”

David McGlade, chief executive of Intelsat, said another issue is that the ITU does not appear to have the authority needed to enforce its own rules.

Daniel S. Goldberg, chief executive of Telesat of Ottawa, Canada, said he hoped the issue with Iran would force the hand of WRC to act.

“It may force ITU to take a stronger stand on this,” Goldberg said. “It is a source of frustration for those of us in the business. There are steps under way to [enable the ITU] to challenge administrations more directly. Sometimes you need an egregious case to establish a system in which [administrations] conduct themselves correctly, and those that don’t are brought into line.”

Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen said his company wants not only the Iranian orbital-reservation issue brought to regulators’ attention, but also the issue of intentional satellite signal interference. Eutelsat, which has a large presence in the Middle East and North Africa, has suffered multiple attempts at jamming its signals in recent years, in Iran and on several occasions during the uprisings of Arab populations against their governments in the past year.

“We are committed to fighting these attempts to block access to channels on our satellites,” de Rosen said. “We cannot remain inert in the face of jamming. We are technicians in the telecommunications business. We hope politicians and regulators act in areas in which we cannot.”



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