Satellite Operators To Create Database To Combat Interference

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CANNES, France — As part of a broader effort to combat satellite interference, several large commercial satellite fleet operators have agreed to create a non-profit organization headquartered in the Isle of Man to operate a voluntary satellite database.

The Space Data Association is being spearheaded by Intelsat, SES and Inmarsat, with other satellite-fleet operators expected to join in the coming months. It is one of several concrete results from a rare common effort between the two largest fixed-satellite services operators, Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington and Luxembourg-based SES, to raise industry awareness of interference as an issue that affects satellite operations everywhere.

The database will assemble information on satellite location, broadcast frequencies and power, signal polarization and coverage areas. If it works as intended, it will reduce the time between when a customer notifies a satellite operator of interference and when that interference is located.

Identifying the source of interference solves only part of the problem, however. A satellite operator, for example, cannot force an errant antenna operator  to cease the disruptive activity. “At some point signal interference is as much about diplomacy as about technology,” said Patricia Constantino of Intelsat, who was attending the Oct. 27-29 meeting here of the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group (SUIRG), which for years has tried to raise industry awareness of the threat posed by interference.

Selecting tax haven Isle of Man as the locale was done in part to ease the fears of some satellite operators that placing a database on U.S. territory would invite U.S. government review — a fear that would have kept several operators from taking part.

In recent months, the Intelsat-SES initiative has secured support from a dozen other satellite operators including Eutelsat, Telesat, SkyPerfectJSat, Hispasat, Satmex, Asiasat, Sat-GE, Amos-Spacecom, Telenor, Star One, Arabsat and global mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat.

It remains unclear how many of these operators will provide regularly updated input into the database. An official from a satellite operator whose company is not a part of the group said his management still has concerns about whether the required data can be delivered without giving away company secrets.

Satellite operators attending the meeting said most interference has one of two causes. The first is antenna-pointing or other installation and operational missteps by ground  station managers. In many cases, they may not be aware that they are disrupting the signal of another user who could be thousands of kilometers away.

The second major cause of interference is defective or obsolete hardware.

Interference has long been an issue for satellite telecommunications but it has not been dealt with in a coordinated way in part because competing satellite operators are not accustomed to telling each other about problems.

Several operators went public with their concerns in 2007 during the World Radiocommunication Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and won a partial success in persuading governments not to permit broadband wireless access technologies, such as WiMax, to use the same section of the C-band radio spectrum already used by satellite systems in many parts of the world.

But the meeting of ITU regulators did not address the broader issue of unintentional interference, which satellite operators say continues to cost millions of dollars each year in lost revenue and expenses related to tracking down the source of interference.

SUIRG President Robert W. Ames Jr. said his organization has had only limited success in persuading its satellite-operator members to discuss interference publicly.

Addressing the conference here Oct. 27, Ames said SUIRG had asked members to provide case studies — stripped of proprietary details — for SUIRG’s Web site. He said so few members participated in it that broadband-wireless backers pointed to the SUIRG data as proof that interference was not a real issue.

The success at the ITU conference gave satellite operators confidence that they could work together. Also helping to organize a global industry response is the evolution of the commercial satellite operators’ landscape. Intelsat and SES, both as a result of mergers earlier this decade, together account for about 50 percent of the global fixed-satellite services business worldwide. When the third- and fourth-ranked operators, Eutelsat of Paris and Telesat of Canada, are included, the figure exceeds 75 percent.

“That has made it a lot easier to get things done,” said Stewart Sanders, SES’s senior vice president for customer service, who is coordinating SES’s interference-reduction work.

SES and Intelsat have agreed to underwrite operator training in regions where they have customers. With SUIRG helping to set operator certification criteria, an on-line training facility is being made available by the Global VSAT Forum, an industry association that represents satellite Earth station builders and network operators. The on-line sessions cost $100 per trainee.

The efforts agreed to so far fall short of mandating that every satellite Earth station include a carrier-identification code providing basic information about the station’s function and its location. But that is what the satellite operator group is calling for, and is working with Earth station manufacturers to introduce.

Russ Hogan of SES, in a presentation to the conference, said it can take days for satellite operators to identify the region in which interference is occurring, despite the use of geo-location tools that more and more satellite operators are using.

In an example that suggests how far the industry has yet to go in tackling the issue, Hogan said SES spent days using its geo-location software to locate interference that one of its customers said was causing business disruption. An early analysis pointed to a region around Yemen, in East Africa, as the source. But several more days of effort determined that the interference was in West Africa.

“We passed this information on to the customer and guess what? It turned out to be a terminal on his own network that was causing the problem,” Hogan said. “We spent a whole week on this. Such is the life of the interference hunter.”

Sanders said that in some cases geo-location accuracy as poor as 50 kilometers wide is good enough, in regions with few Earth stations. But even the finest geo-location system confronts the reality that two-way satellite Earth stations are so close together that it takes a helicopter overflight, or even a door-to-door search, before the source is found.

SUIRG Chairman James Budden referred to one interference case in which the source was determined to be in Sao Paulo, Brazil. “There were 3,000 [satellite] antennas in Sao Paulo, just for this one customer,” he said.