PARIS — Satellite telephone transmissions handled by Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co. of Abu Dhabi have been subjected to repeated intentional jamming since early this year by undisclosed parties operating inside Israel, according to industry officials familiar with the matter.
Thuraya Chief Executive Yousuf Al Sayed acknowledged the jamming in an interview here Sept. 7 but declined to disclose details of its frequency. He said the interference, which he characterized as intentional, began early in 2006 and ended “less than a month ago.”
“We have been working with our contractor, Boeing, to solve this problem by technical means,” Al Sayed said here during the World Summit for Satellite Financing, organized by Euroconsult.
Industry officials said the Thuraya satellite, a large geostationary-orbiting spacecraft located at 44 degrees east longitude, is like most commercial telecommunications satellites in its vulnerability to intentional or accidental signal jamming.
Satellite operators delivering television broadcasts to China in the past also have been subject to signal piracy, with the interlopers often laying over their own renegade programming for several minutes at a time.
But the Chinese jammers have been forced to adopt a hit-and-run strategy to avoid being tracked down by the Chinese government — or neighboring governments to the extent they are acting outside China.
That was not the case with Thuraya, where the apparent goal of the signal disrupters was not to send a political message but rather to render useless the Thuraya telephone service in certain areas of the Middle East.
The Thuraya-1 satellite was launched in late 2000 and the service began in July 2001. The satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., with its first-generation telephone handsets designed and built by Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md. Thuraya has about 250,000 customers in its coverage area, which includes the entire Middle East and parts of Europe and South Asia.
Thuraya has regularly made news due to the use of its phones in remote regions of Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. military forces temporarily suspended the use of Thuraya telephones by journalists traveling with U.S. troops after a rumor circulated that the phones could be used by Iraqi armed forces to guide bombs to U.S. troop positions.
Thuraya and Boeing issued formal denials that Thuraya’s positioning function could be used for such a purpose.
One industry official said engineers working on the Thuraya jamming problem were able to modify the satellite’s beam to diminish, but not eliminate, the interference. This official said that ultimately the source of the jamming was located, and that a series of quiet negotiations began to put a stop to the activity. This official said the jamming was not related to the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon.
Industry officials said that while targeting communications in a war zone is a well-established priority during military operations, pirating or jamming signals broadcast by legally operating telecommunications satellites raises issues.
“You run the risk of it happening to you if you start down this road,” one industry official said. “Every nation has television or radio programming it wants to preserve, and if any nation was suspected of jamming it would risk having its own assets compromised.”
Barbara Opall-Rome contributed to this story from Tel Aviv, Israel