Satellite Regulators Rebuff Iran, Punt on Avanti Dispute

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PARIS — International regulators rejected an Iranian appeal to keep rights to an orbital position despite the lack of a satellite and declined to address Luxembourg’s argument that Britain’s Avanti should be refused rights to a slot it already occupies, according to government and industry officials.

Meeting in Geneva Sept. 10-14, the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Radio Regulations Board (RRB) refrained, as expected, from intervening in a longstanding dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the one side, and Qatar and France on the other, over rights to frequencies at 25.5-26 degrees east.

Saudi Arabia’s Arabsat operates a satellite there that is hosting an Iranian system whose legitimacy is disputed by France and Qatar. Eutelsat of Paris has entered a partnership with Qatar’s satellite operator to launch a satellite to that slot in early 2013. The Arabsat and Eutelsat/Qatari satellites will interfere with each other if the operators in question do not reach a coordination agreement.

As it has on multiple occasions in the past several years, the ITU urged the parties to keep talking.

In a separate dispute, Iran has been trying since early this year to find a satellite in orbit that it could lease or buy and move into an Iranian slot at 34 degrees east. With a satellite there, Iran could claim it had secured its rights to the position.

International regulators had given Iran until July 14 to put a satellite into position and start broadcasting in the assigned frequencies. In normal circumstances that would not be difficult given the number of satellites nearing retirement. But the U.S.-led international embargo on trade with Iran has made it difficult for the Iranian government to find a seller.

Iran had told the RRB that it had recently found a satellite. It declined to identify the satellite or its owner, but said that if the RRB requested, it would disclose this information.

But as the meeting was about to start on Sept. 10, Iran submitted a fresh document saying it could not furnish the material. The board said Iran had definitively lost its rights to the slot. Whether any documentation would have swayed the RRB remains unknown.

Iran argued that the international sanctions regime that made it impossible for Iran to find a satellite seller constitutes a “force majeure,” a line of reasoning that the RRB did not accept.

Meanwhile, Luxembourg and Britain are at odds over their rights to Ka-band frequencies at 31 and 31.5 degrees east. Luxembourg-based SES had stationed the Astra 3B satellite, launched in May 2010, at the 31.5 degrees position for about two weeks before moving it to its assigned slot.

London-based Avanti Communications performed a similar maneuver with its Hylas 1 satellite in 2011, having it idle at 31 degrees for 16 days before moving it to its assigned position.

The ITU had told Luxembourg that its Astra 3B activity did not constitute “bringing into use” of the network SES and Luxembourg had registered. With no other satellite having been there using the Ka-band frequencies Luxembourg had registered, the regulators ruled that the Luxembourg reservation had expired.

Avanti’s rights to its slot expired in May, but the company’s Hylas 2 Ka-band satellite was launched in August into that position. The British government told the RRB that the Avanti project, representing a real investment and not an example of orbital rights abuse, should be given consideration despite the fact that it was about three months late in arriving in place.

The ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, a lower body that recommends courses of action to the board, in July said it sided with the British argument, in part because the Luxembourg government never backed up its claims with evidence that a satellite was about to be moved into the position.

SES plans to operate the Astra 5B satellite at 31.5 degrees starting in 2013. The satellite’s main mission is Ku-band television transmission, but it carries a Ka-band payload that cannot be operated as designed without interfering with Avanti’s Hylas 2.

The RRB decided that because Luxembourg’s written protest was delivered to the board late — meaning less than three weeks before the RRB convened — it would not be discussed in detail. Luxembourg may reintroduce the matter to the board’s next meeting in November, the RRB ruled.

Meanwhile, Hylas 2 is operating at 31 degrees east.

Between now and the arrival of Astra 5B in 2013, SES and Avanti will be asked to find a way that both satellites can be operated without interference.

The question is whether Avanti should be considered in a superior position relative to SES during these negotiations. SES Chief Executive Romain Bausch said Sept. 12 that the company will insist that negotiations occur “on an equal footing.”

Avanti Chief Executive David Williams said Sept. 13 during the World Satellite Business Week conference here, organized by Euroconsult, that Avanti considers the Radiocommunication Bureau decision in July to be the final word on the matter. Williams said Avanti “is a good orbital citizen and is always willing to discuss frequency coordination with operators with lower priority” rights.

 

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