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COLUMN ONE : Elbowing for a Piece of Space : The parking lot for satellites is getting jammed. So a shoving match has broken out between Tonga and Indonesia as nations and companies fight for choice spots in the communications network.

September 20, 1993|MARK A. STEIN | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

It is shaping up as a prizefight in which the prize is literally out of this world.

In one corner is an aging flyweight out of Indonesia called Palapa B1. In the other, a young bruiser called Gorizont 17 from the tiny kingdom of Tonga. The winner will claim a lucrative piece of a dwindling resource: open space in outer space.

The combatants are telecommunication satellites whose owners--private companies in Indonesia and Indiana--have stubbornly parked their "birds" in the same orbital slot 22,300 miles above New Guinea. Each is threatening to crank up the volume and drown out the other guy until he gives up and goes away.

The standoff grows from a harsh fact of modern technological society. There is only so much room for satellites in the prime band of space above the Equator called geosynchronous orbit. As the demand for worldwide communications grows, so does the competition for these uniquely useful satellite parking spots.

"Fears that the geosynchronous arc would fill up weren't even considered" when the first telecommunications satellite was lofted into orbit 30 years ago, said Scott Chase, editor of the Maryland-based industry newsletter Via Satellite. "Now, suddenly, it is here."

Strictly speaking, battles over the valuable spots in geosynchronous orbit are forbidden by international treaty. But the agency that administers the pact concedes that it has no way to enforce it--no earthbound sanctions, no interplanetary police, no orbiting tow trucks.

The treaty, supporters say, dates to a pre-entrepreneurial era when space seemed plentiful and conflicts were resolved amicably between government ministers. Now, they say, the rules have changed.

In the South Pacific standoff, companies have teamed up with national governments to claim a particularly valuable place in space--one capable of linking the booming East Asian telecommunications market with North America. In exchange for exercising their rights under international law, the governments share in the considerable profit that a good slot can bring.

"We are rapidly reaching saturation in key parts of the (geosynchronous) arc over Asia and the congestion will spread west and east from there," said Timothy Logue, a space analyst for the Washington law firm Reid & Priest.

"The intensity with which we see disagreements over (this part of the arc) is a new phenomenon," he added. But it may not seem new for long. "We are going to go through a stressful time, and we are just on the cusp of it now."

The U.S. Space Command in Colorado says 695 satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, and dozens more are on order or are scheduled to be launched. But because satellites are usually separated by 2 degrees of arc to avoid crossing signals, the number of slots in the 360-degree geosynchronous arc nominally is limited to 180--and many of those are over open ocean, and thus useless for telecommunications satellites.

For years, this crowding was managed under an international treaty administered by a United Nations agency, the International Telecommunications Union. Satellites sharing a slot must operate on different frequencies or aim their antennas at different parts of the globe. This makes it easier for ground antennas to distinguish among satellites.

But as the conflict above Indonesia demonstrates, these old tricks may not be enough to accommodate everyone who wants to be in space.

Chase, Logue and others say the treaty was drawn up in another era, when only a handful of wealthy nations possessed satellite technology and the telecommunications industry was dominated by a handful of giant companies, most either owned or strictly regulated by governments.

Now, with deregulation spreading around the globe, aggressive entrepreneurs are jumping into the satellite business. These operators, who are forbidden to claim orbital slots, are shopping among smaller and poorer nations for a sovereign power willing to claim slots for their countries, then turn them over to private companies--for a share of the profit.

The practice began in earnest in 1988, when San Diego entrepreneur Matt C. Nilson persuaded the king of Tonga--a small, agrarian island nation of 180,000--to claim 16 choice geosynchronous slots over the Pacific.

Administrators at the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, a 126-nation cooperative with 19 satellites and plans for five more, challenged Tonga's claim. Intelsat, as the cooperative is called, argued before the International Telecommunications Union that Tonga lacked the resources to use so many slots itself and was trying to reap a windfall by cornering the market.

The ITU eventually concluded that Tonga's claim, after being voluntarily scaled back to six slots, was legal. Tonga got its slots and later added a seventh.

Some players in the satellite game praised the ITU decision as a righteous blow for small or underdeveloped nations, such as Tonga, which are technologically or economically unable to claim their share of the valuable slots.

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