Iran creates havoc at ITU

Iran has been planning a satellite system, Zohreh, since the early 1990s and in March 2001 signed a major contract with Russia to design, build and launch a craft. This project was scrubbed, although in 2004 Iran said they would launch a craft by 2005. In Jan 2005 Russia and Iran signed another contract, valued at $132 million, which has yet to see progress.

However, for all this time Iran has had official filings lodged with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva which has the effect of forbidden other would-be users access to the designated orbital slot and frequencies for the Iranian scheme. Normally, such ‘paper satellites’ have a fixed time to occupy the slot with a real satellite or else their filing lapses.

The ITU has, it is reported by trade mag Space News, faced “extraordinary claims” about the Zohreh ‘paper’ satellite. Iran’s first surprising claim was that it HAD been broadcasting, using frequencies aboard an Arabsat craft at 26 deg East. Iran is a member of the Arabsat consortium. Last July Paris-based Eutelsat announced a deal with oil and gas-rich Qatar to launch a joint-venture satellite with ictQatar and to slot the craft at 25.5 deg East, and in the very same neighbourhood as Arabsat/Zohreh. Moreover, the French regulator, seemingly not very impressed with the Zohrah claim to already exist, said the Iranian craft had not met its regulatory obligations and thus the orbital slot should be vacated for another satellite operator – Eutelsat.

Further complicating the matter, Saudi Arabia, a major signatory member of Arabsat, told the ITU – somewhat surprisingly – that an Arabsat lease of spare Eutelsat capacity included a sub-lease of capacity to Iran – operating as Zohrah. The French, ever the diplomats, politely said this could not possibly be the case especially given that the ITU’s rules specifically prohibit any nation from bringing into use its frequencies by this method, and besides they (the French and Eutelsat) could not accept this use of their properly allocated frequencies (on EuroBird-2).

As if that tactic wasn’t enough the Iranian’s then said that all along they had been using frequencies on rented capacity supplied on the PAS-5 craft, licensed by the US government and owned more recently by Intelsat.

This somewhat bizarre tale of intrigue is made even more outrageous by the USA’s Julie Zoller, a former chairwoman and vice-chairwoman of the ITU’s important Radio Regulations Board (RRB), which normally arbitrates such squabbles. Ms Zoller, re-elected as chair of the RRB, seemingly, sided with the Iranian argument, saying a nation’s solemn word cannot be challenged by the ITU. The rest of the RRB agreed with her, and thus permitted to leave the Zohreh filings intact.

The decision has been met with shock and horror by satellite officials just about everywhere. It has, in the words of one official, pulled the rug from underneath all the recent attempts to “clean up” the satellite communications sector, and the misuse of orbital filings.

Intelsat’s chief counsel has made a sworn statement that neither PanAmSat nor Intelsat authorised the use of its satellites by the Zohrah system. Another senior official at the US State Department said bluntly that the Iranian claims were simply false! Similar statements came from the French, and the Qataris, all of which combined to make the RRB reluctantly and most unusually agreed to look again at its earlier decision. This it did at the end of March.

The full RRB board, at the end of March, reversed the original decision saying that Zohreh would now not have priority over its filings. Eutelsat says it will make a ‘best effort’ attempt to find a solution with Iran. But meanwhile, logic and common sense has been returned to the orbital filing rules for new satellites. If operators fail to place a satellite into a ‘filed’ orbit in a given time then the filing lapses.