'Furious' row ahead of satellite decision

Today (March 18) the EU is expected to announce that Dublin-based Solaris Mobile (a j-v between SES Astra and Eutelsat) and London-based Inmarsat will each receive a slice of S-Band satellite bandwidth which will enable Europe-wide services like DVB-SH mobile TV. But there’s already controversy over the decision, with the powerful ITU arguing that the EU’s decision sets a dangerous precedent.

The ITU is responsible, amongst other things, for ensuring safe and interference-free coordination of various satellite operators and their terrestrial broadcasting counterparts. The complaint raised by the ITU argues that there’s nothing to stop other similar players, like Russia, or African or Middle East groupings now issuing their own – uncoordinated – ‘permissions to operate’.

"We see the EU as an unnecessary level [of regulation]," said Aarti Holla-Maini, secretary general of the European Space Operators Association. The allegation is that the decisions have not been reached fairly and may be uncompetitive, favouring European-based businesses.

Today’s awards are made from 4 applicants each of whom had to submit to an EU ‘beauty contest’. Solaris Mobile’s satellite is due to be launched within the next two weeks, and the company says it is well ahead of its rivals in terms of readiness to start services. However, ICO-Global and TerreStar, both US-based, are understood to have failed in their bids. The awards run for 18 years.

Not helping ICO-Global’s case was the UK’s view, formally announced at the end of February, that the UK would no longer support ICO-Global’s frequency assignments. “Following a review of the status of the deployment of the ICO-P mobile satellite system conducted over a three year period involving extensive consultation with ICO Global Communications (ICO), and having carefully considered the representations made by ICO, Ofcom has taken a decision that it will write to the ITU on 17 March to instruct that the ICO-P assignments currently recorded in the ITU Master Register be cancelled,” said Ofcom’s February statement.

ICO-Global subsequently said it took “strong exception” to the Ofcom/ITU position, arguing: “ICO is continuing to defend its international legal rights, including through participation in international regulatory organizations and litigation.”

Reports say that the ITU considers that a well-coordinated scheme could have seen up to 10 satellite operators using much the same bandwidth without risk of interference. Reportedly the ITU is “furious” that the EU has proceeded to award this spectrum without consideration for the longer-term impact such awards may have.

Indeed, the EU decision is likely to run into something of an international legal minefield. The prospects of legal challenges, especially from ICO-Global, are high.