Arabsat and Eutelsat face orbital stand-off

Around this time next year, Paris-based Eutelsat is due to orbit its powerful 6,000 kgs 25B satellite to the 25.5 degrees East position broadcasting to the Arab world. The trouble is that Saudi Arabian-based Arabsat already has a trio of satellite in the position (adjacent at 26 degrees East). Indeed, the Arabsat BADR-series are extremely busy, modern, and highly popular with viewers.

The problem centres on Arabsat’s use of a batch of frequencies ‘owned’ by Iran. Called Zohreh-2, the frequencies are now the focus of an intense dispute between Arabsat and Eutelsat. The ITU, which supervises the rules and regulations about orbital slots, has already ruled controversially in Iran’s favour.

The ruling was widely expected to be overturned – or amended – at the February meeting of the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC). It never happened. Worse, despite intense lobbying by France on behalf of Eutelsat, Qatar and USA interests, the WRC decided to allow Iran to retain its regulatory filing, and thus create what one observer has described as a “nightmare” scenario.

In February at the major CabSat exhibition and conference in Dubai, another series of informal meetings took place between Arabsat and Eutelsat, but again no agreement was reached. Last week in Washington DC the rival operators were again present, but no agreement was reached.

While it is wholly fair to say that Arabsat’s ‘rights’ to the Zohreh-2 frequencies are – at best – tenuous, they nevertheless occupy the slot with a physical satellite.

Eutelsat’s CEO Michel de Rosen, speaking at a press briefing in Washington stated: “The definition of what is an acceptable compromise may differ. People who know the facts know that the Iranian statements were disconnected from reality.”

Arabsat’s CEO Khalid Balkheyour was more circumspect, saying that they were prepared for a compromise and to allow calm to return to the normally silent world of space. Balkheyour said Arabsat was prepared to give up 50 per cent of the disputed frequencies, and this reflected the International Telecommunications Union’s suggested solution. “But Eutelsat says it wants all the frequencies.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The Eutelsat craft (Eutelsat 25B, and with the Qatari portion of the satellite called Es’Hail-1) is well-advanced at Space Systems/Lora’s manufacturing facility. Last week Eutelsat signed a contract with Arianespace for the craft’s launch (during Q2/2013).