London -- European satellite company Eutelsat has
apparently lost a long-running battle with its archrival, Astra.
The International Telecommunications Union last month
turned down Eutelsat's application that would have given it access to an orbital slot
at 29 degrees east longitude that is also claimed by Astra.
Had the ITU sided with Eutelsat in the dispute, it would
have been the first time that two competing satellites in Europe shared the same orbital
position. And it would have enabled British direct-to-home viewers to pick up both Astra-
and Eutelsat-transmitted channels without needing separate dishes -- unless they happened
to have steerable dishes.
Securing the orbital slot at 29 would have been a
considerable coup for Eutelsat because Astra is home to the overwhelmingly dominant
British Sky Broadcasting DTH platform.
The ITU reached a decision that suggested that Eutelsat has
no claim to the precious 29 position. Sociétée Européenne des Satellites S.A. (SES),
which operates the Astra fleet of satellites, is already transmitting prelaunch signals
for BSkyB's new digital transmissions from the 28.2 degrees east position.
Eutelsat has previously used 29 for test broadcasts of its
Hot Bird satellite series, but it has not permanently placed a satellite at the position.
For all practical purposes, 28.2 and 29 are considered the same position.
SES/Astra argued that Eutelsat's application lapsed
more than one year ago, and that Eutelsat has lost any "rights" to the slot.
Eutelsat officials were reportedly surprised --
"livid," according to one insider -- by the ITU's ruling, and they
immediately said they would contest the decision, appealing via the French government. In
Eutelsat's opinion, SES is itself not entitled to broadcast in certain digital
frequencies, and it "is in violation of ITU radio regulations."
The problem is that the ITU is now operating in completely
uncharted waters, having always achieved compromise over disputed claims. Questions have
emerged over how any Eutelsat "appeal" might be mounted and what court might
arbitrate or decide.
Besides, by this fall, Astra will have two additional
satellites at 28.2, and possession of that spot and its frequencies might dissuade
Eutelsat from any time-consuming challenge.