Talks, Mediation Fail To Settle Iran-France Frequency Dispute

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PARIS — Iran and France remain deadlocked over access to satellite frequencies at a crowded location in the orbital arc despite months of discussions and two formal attempts at mediation by the international body that regulates orbital positions and broadcast frequencies, government and industry officials said.

The issue is viewed by some as a test case of whether the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has the will to impose regulatory order on a global satellite industry in which political and financial stakes appear to be increasing.

“We all knew this clash was coming, and now it appears imminent,” one official said of the dispute over Iran’s Zohreh-2 satellite system, which is in orbit, and Paris-based Eutelsat’s joint venture with Qatar, whose $300 million satellite is scheduled for launch in 2013.

“If the ITU cannot force a respect for its own regulations, then people will justifiably wonder what it is doing,” said the official, who has no ties to either the French or Iranian telecom administrations or to Eutelsat.

The ITU has agreed to broker a third and ostensibly final round of negotiations between Iran and France, and their partners Sept. 17-19. If no progress is made, the ITU’s Radio Regulations Board (RRB) will be asked to rule at a meeting scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 4 in Geneva.

In the meantime, Iran continues to use radio frequencies it claims access to aboard an Arabsat satellite at 26 degrees east longitude, and Eutelsat continues construction of its IctQatar satellite co-owned with Qatar. Neither side has moved off its original position, according to government and industry officials.

Eutelsat confirmed July 13 that it was not altering its joint venture plans with Qatar or the satellite to be launched into a slot at 25.5 degrees east, but declined further comment. The Iranian ITU delegation and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Communications Technology did not respond to requests for comment.

The French government body that represents France at the ITU, the National Frequencies Agency (ANF), declined to comment on the issue.

The Iranian government argues that it is within its regulatory rights to use frequencies on a satellite owned by the Arabsat organization of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Arabsat has defended its customer at the ITU despite the fact that the government of Qatar is an Arabsat shareholder.

Faced with allegations from the ITU that Zohreh-2 has not met the minimum requirements for continuous operations, Iran argued that before it was on the Arabsat satellite, Zohreh-2 had made a home on a Eutelsat satellite licensed by France and, before that, on a U.S. satellite owned by Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington and licensed by the U.S. government. If a satellite system has a two-year broadcasting lapse its frequency and orbital slot assignments can be revoked by the ITU.

Eutelsat and the ANF have denied this, as have Intelsat and the U.S. State Department, in written statements to the ITU.

These denials persuaded the ITU’s Radicommunication Bureau to move to strike Zohreh-2 from the list of registered systems, clearing the frequencies for Eutelsat to use now with its Eurobird-2 satellite, and in 2013 with the satellite being developed with Qatar.

But the Radiocommunication Bureau hesitated to decide the issue because doing so would be tantamount to saying Iran was not telling the truth about its own system. The bureau referred the issue to the RRB for adjudication.

In a decision that has not been clearly explained, the RRB in December said it had no choice but to believe Iran. ITU regulations can be read to say the organization is bound to accept the word of an administration when that administration is describing its own system.

That decision forced reactions by the U.S. State Department, the French government, the Qatari government and others.

In April, the RRB took the exceptional step of agreeing to review its December decision.

Eutelsat provided a data room for the RRB attendees at the April meeting to permit them to read the full text of a contract Eutelsat had with Arabsat under which Arabsat leased capacity from the Paris-based operator. Iran and Arabsat had claimed that this contract was the means by which Iran had operated Zohreh-2 before moving to the Arabsat-owned satellite. They said Iran essentially operated Zohreh-2 using Eutelsat capacity subleased from Arabsat. The RRB’s decision in April was to accord regulatory priority neither to Iran’s Zohreh-2 nor to Eutelsat. It agreed to defer judgment until its July meeting. The RRB asked the Radiocommunication Bureau to mediate talks among the affected parties — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Arabsat, France and Eutelsat, with Qatar — in the hope that a compromise might be reached.

A first meeting of the two sides occurred in May. “Nothing was agreed to, and it was clear that Iran and Saudi Arabia and Arabsat had not coordinated their positions,” said one official who was present at the meeting.

The RRB’s July meeting was moved up to June 13-21 in Geneva. Here too, the RRB elected to urge Iran and France and the associated organizations to continue a dialogue. The RRB agreed to review progress at its late-October meeting. “I have never seen such dithering and obfuscation,” said one ITU veteran, who voiced doubts about whether the RRB will ever be able to reach a decision that enforces ITU rules.

“The central point is: Can Administration A bring into use a system by using a satellite owned by Administration B without the permission or knowledge of Administration B? It’s fairly straightforward.”

The second meeting between Iran and France occurred in early July. Two officials who attended described it as tense, with occasional shouting and the use of harsh language that is rare in ITU sessions.

“What became clear is that if Arabsat and Eutelsat had to work this out by themselves, they would come to a conclusion,” said one official who sat in on the session. “But the Iranians are not letting Arabsat off the hook, and the result was that no one offered a compromise that would let both the Eutelsat and Iranian networks co-exist.”

 

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