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Satellite-jamming becoming a big problem in the Middle East and North Africa


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The Arab Spring has had yet another consequence—satellite jamming, and the practice is serious enough to threaten the satellite operators' business. Two operators, Arabsat and Nilesat, complained about the jamming in the Satellite 2012 Conference in Washington, D.C. last week, according to an article in Space News. Arabsat is a 21-country consortium that provides broadcasting to over 100 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Nilesat is an Egypt-based operator that carries 415 channels to the Middle East and North Africa. The satellites also provide broadband, telephone, and VSAT service.

Jamming and rounding up satellite dishes has become a common practice for governments wishing to limit unfavorable coverage in their own (or sometimes other people's) countries. An article in February at BroadcastEngineering.com detailed the decision of the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to condemn satellite jamming in Iran as "contrary to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." That decision came after complaints by several broadcasters, including the BBC, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, and Voice of America. Last year Reuters reported that jamming of satellite phones and other services occurred in Libya during the uprising.

But the issue may not be limited to Middle East governments. The Islamic Republic of Iran's Broadcasting English website claimed in January that British technicians were jamming Iranian broadcasts on Eutelsat's Hotbird sat network from a site in Bahrain. If that's accurate, it may suggest that European governments think it's acceptable to jam European companies' satellites as long as the broadcasts themselves aren't European.

Any attempt to jam satellites in the United States is generally tracked and stopped quickly by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which strictly enforces the licensing and sharing of US radio spectrum by the many parties that use it. Off-frequency or overpowered broadcasts in the United States generally result in an instant broadcaster shutdown and possible fines or jail terms.

In Europe, a new pan-European regulatory body entitled the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) began meeting in 2010. BEREC has broad authority for licensing and enforcement and has, from all reports, even broader and stricter powers.

Unfortunately for customers or companies seeking redress, there is no pan-African or pan-Middle Eastern authority available to prevent illegal transmissions. There are, instead, cooperative agreements between the countries that make up each body of operators. The countries that are doing the jamming are member states of this consortium, and at times they have even jammed their own broadcasts.

In a few cases, according to the Space News article, the operators have been able to identify the antennas doing the jamming using Google Earth. Notifying the governments involved is ineffective, and there is at present no practical way to stop the jammers.

The two companies were hesitant to name the culprits, but countries that have been mentioned elsewhere in the press include Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, and Iran. Syria and Bahrain, in particular, have ongoing domestic problems right now.

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