When Interference is a problem

When Interference is a problem

The soaring demand for more bandwidth capacity poses increasing challenges for spectrum users that are dependent on it for their business. This, coupled in the satellite arena with the recent increase in interference and jamming for political purposes, provides areas of discussion in the regulatory forums. This article explores some of the issues facing administrations and poses some questions about what the broadcasters are doing to engage with the regulatory bodies.

Research published by Electronics.ca in March of this year predicts a demand for 7,150 36-MHz C and Ku-band transponders by 2012. Depending on the satellite design this means between 100 and 300 satellites over the next three years if demand is to be satisfied. These projections do not include the capacity needed for military use, communications, space exploration, GPS and other uses. If it is all delivered, users of all this capacity will welcome its arrival, as the alternative would be increasing competition for dwindling resources and inevitable price increases.

 

The number of satellite TV platforms around the world has continued to grow. The Euroconsult 5th edition Satellite TV Platforms, World Survey and Prospects to 2021 released in May of this year reports that there were nearly 140 platforms by 2011 reaching 180 million subscribers. Revenues in 2011 were $90 billion and projected to reach $150 billion by 2021. It goes on to note that HD accounted for 2800 channels across these platforms of which 600 were added during the course of the year.

Satellites are clearly a growth business. Outwardly it is a rosy picture for the manufacturers, launch providers and the satellite owners and operators. New uses of satellite spectrum such as broadband services has seen rapid growth and a number of players are operating or have announced Ku-band services which are set to be the new growth area.

So demand is going up and the user industry will hope that supply will follow. This simple economic truth though, masks a number of challenges that the industry has been trying to address in the regulatory world that governs satellite and spectrum use and operation.

The problem of services being affected by interference has existed since the early days of mass broadcasting. The international broadcasters whose audiences were historically built on the back of shortwave services are used to the idea of output being affected by poor propagation or signals on similar frequencies making services inaudible. The key question was often whether such interference was deliberate or accidental. Whilst it was usually possible to identify the source of such interference, the motive was more difficult to prove.

The ITU, whose role is to determine the framework by which such problems are addressed, does not have powers to intervene but encourages and relies on bi-lateral discussions between the “authorities”, the member states that make up the ITU, to resolve issues. This is fine when all members play by the rules, but becomes more difficult when they don’t or when the rules are interpreted in different ways. This has been an all too common problem in recent years when interference has resulted in services being disrupted and taken off air.

A number of broadcasters have suffered interference in the delivery of satellite TV channels over the last few years that has variously been described as interference or jamming depending on whose perspective is being reported.

It is not a new phenomenon and interference has occurred since satellites were first launched. Uplink facilities can go off frequency; a misunderstanding about a frequency allocation and interference can become an issue. But deliberate jamming is a far more invidious problem and one that goes to the heart of the way the industry operates. The ability to provide services free of interference assumes everybody will honour the spirit and letter of the ITU regulations. This is not always the case.

In the last few years there has been an increased incidence of interference of broadcaster content and a number have been the subject of what they describe as deliberate interference or jamming. It has not been limited to the traditional international public service broadcasters in Europe and the US, but included commercial operations in the Gulf and Middle East. Not all of the incidents have received much press coverage, in some quarters there is a reluctance to talk about the problems and perhaps highlight the ease with which it appears to be carried out. Those seeking to disrupt unwanted broadcasts, and within the uplink footprint, will transmit a signal on the same frequency as the uplink carrier, which on a standard MCPC service will affect all the other users of the transponder, not just the unwanted service.

The collateral damage to other users means the satellite operator’s only solution is to remove the service they believe was being targeted from the transponder. This resolves the impact on other users of the transponders but does little to help the affected broadcaster.

So when such problems do occur what is the solution and what recourse does the user have? In practice, as many of those affected will testify, the ability to address the issue is limited. Their contract may not be with the satellite operator, but through one of the many aggregators who lease transponders and sell on the capacity.

In most instances the satellite operator will be able to identify the source of the interference, but knowing the source does not mean that it is easy to resolve. Short term measures may include the use of increased power, alternative transponders or even alternative satellites. The latter though is not always a viable solution if the target market is not looking at the satellite. The ability of the satellite operator to provide technical solutions is limited if the source of interference originates from within the uplink footprint. In time, with advances in satellite technology, it may be possible to make such jamming more difficult, though it is not likely to be a quick solution.

So if users have little commercial protection and technical solutions are limited, what assistance can be sought in the regulatory environment? When interference occurs the responsibility for reporting the incident to the ITU lies with the administration for the satellite operator. It should also be reported to the administration for the country where the source of the interference originates. So if the interference affects a user on one of Eutelsat’s fleet it would be the French spectrum authority, the Agence Nationale des Fréquence (ANFR) that would take up the case.

Drawing issues to the attention of the ITU does not though mean a solution will be found. The ITU, a UN agency, depends on the consensual agreement of its member nations to determine the way it operates, regulates, allocates and its rules. It has no ability to intervene, enforce or bring sanctions to those who seek to operate outside its agreed procedures. It looks to its member states to resolve issues bi-laterally when they occur and in this lies the problem. Deliberate interference by one state on services provide by another’s satellite operator, probably means that discussions between the “administrations” is unlikely to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Some contributors to the ITU see this issue as a political problem rather than a regulatory one, but if the commercial impact of jamming continues one can only ask how much longer this can continue.

The ITU’s World Radio Conference 2012, an event that takes place usually every three years, was seen by some users as a timely opportunity to give the subject an airing and bring some change to the ITU’s role in dealing with such issues. The incidence of jamming over the past three years appears to have been more significant than ahead of previous World Radio Conferences. This bought the issue in to sharper focus as agenda papers were being prepared. It is not a subject that was new to world radio conferences and a number of agenda items included proposals carried over from, and considered since, previous conferences.

Much work was done ahead of the conference by broadcasters and conference preparatory groups, particularly within Europe, to find a consensus for tabling a proposal for discussion. The optimism of the users though was tempered by the pragmatism of the contributing authorities, whose role at the conference has to cover a broad remit across the communications, broadcast, military and other spectrum uses. New regulations take time to evolve and require a consensus of contributing states to agree agenda item proposals. Proposals from one group of administrations opposed by others are unlikely to be agreed by the conference. Much discussion goes on behind the scenes and an administration aware of a sensitive proposal will water it down if it does not think a consensus is possible or if it thinks other initiatives that may have greater national importance will affected. With spectrum an increasingly scarce resource, obtaining agreement to growing demands of the mobile industry and the associated national economic benefit will prevail over issues that are likely to bring disagreement to the conference floor.

The result of all this pre-conference work and discussion meant that the outcome fell far short of what the users affected by jamming might have wished for. Conference article 15 included a proposal under 15.1A that read “Member States are responsible for ending transmissions of signals originating from their territory and intended or designed to disturb or prevent the reception of other signals” with the rationale “To increase the levels of protection of the radiocommunication infrastructure worldwide”. Not exactly a solution that gives the ITU the ability to intervene when member states flout the rules of the ITU, though given the pace of change in ITU rules and regulations, anything tougher was probably over optimistic.

But all this rather begs the question. If the levels of demand and growth noted above are realised there is going to be more content going to more places, not all of it wanted. The incidence and the ease by which jamming or deliberate interference appears to be carried out, does start to pose risks for the satellite industry that has depended on the ITU’s premise of non-interference since its inception. The satellite industry has been working with regulators and administrations to try and address the problem, not least because the regulatory model under which the industry operations provides little protection for the commercial model exposed, as it is, to the vagaries of entities that see jamming as an easy way of stopping content it does not want broadcast. Publicly the same satellite industry has, for quite understandable reasons, sought to stay apolitical and not get drawn in to the issues beyond their reporting obligations.

There are some problems, such as jamming, where there is debate to be had about the remit of the ITU and whether it has or should have jurisdiction beyond its responsibility for determining standards and processes for spectrum use. The way the ITU operates is the product of years of negotiations by its member states over its role; the rules and regulations by which it works, and the extent to which it can intervene when problems arise. The dependence on problems being resolved by bi-lateral discussions between those member states might not be a sustainable model in the long term. Some might go further; is the deliberate jamming by one nation state of the television channel or other service of another nation state a political or a regulatory matter and should it be a matter for the ITU? In practise it has not been empowered by its members.

This article has focused on broadcast, but the issues are no less a risk for communications, military and other use. They are probably just less talked about. Cyber terrorism is a major issue that countries are now addressing, though usually nationally rather than through forums like the ITU. The problems though are not dissimilar. The problem of satellite jamming has highlighted that the ITU is not able to provide a remedy when some members choose to operate outside the agreed rules and regulations that they have signed up to. The very nature of the ITU’s mandate, one based on years of discussions between its members, suggests that any changes would take many years to implement. Others will understandably argue that it is not the body for sanctions and penalties. But if not the ITU, then who?

Article written by Senior Partner, Mike Cronk for Satellite Evolution

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Last modified on 23 October 2015
Mike Cronk

Mike Cronk is a media technology leader with track record in business change and programme delivery.