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Eutelsat and Inmarsat Execs Slam Each Other in Regulatory Dispute

By | July 23, 2019

Major global satellite operators Inmarsat and Eutelsat are involved a tense, lengthy legal dispute regarding the use of mobile satellite services in Europe, based on previously awarded licenses. In late June, the French Conseil d’Etat referred questions surrounding Eutelsat’s appeal of ARCEP’s (French telecoms regulator) decision to authorize Inmarsat to operate terrestrial relay antennas. Eutelsat said it uses these antennas to offer In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) services in France, which the company believes was not the original mandate for this spectrum. The Conseil d’Etat has now referred several preliminary questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU), in a dispute that is likely to drag on for months — or even years.

However, Wladimir Bocquet, director of regulatory affairs, spectrum management and policy, Eutelsat believes the dispute goes beyond just how Inmarsat is powering its IFC services. He told Via Satellite in an exclusive interview, “As WRC-2019 approaches, it is important to get the message across that each satellite operator should respect the use of the spectrum it has been allocated for. This has to be ensured so that everyone within the satellite industry can benefit from the same rules once spectrum license is attributed. Secondly, it is essential that the spectrum dedicated to satellite is predominantly used for the purpose of satellite.”

Inmarsat naturally takes an opposite view, and does not believe this dispute will have any impact on the satellite industry as it looks to protect its spectrum resources at WRC-2019. Fabio Leite, Vice President (VP), regulatory and market access, Inmarsat told Via Satellite, “It is a very speculative argument as we are playing according to the rules. In no way, will EAN issues have an impact on WRC-2019. If somehow, this system was really a terrestrial system, do you think the regulators would be giving us a license with the same conditions? They would be probably using a model that is very close to cellular systems. It is a completely different approach. So, they are using a statement that does not match reality. This is the beauty of this framework. The licensing system is done in a different way to terrestrial.”

Leite also unsurprisingly rejects Eutelsat’s arguments that Inmarsat’s approach should have used more satellite compared to terrestrial. He adds, “Eutelsat’s reference that our implementation of EAN has departed from the original Award objectives. Of course, this is biased in a sense, that the Award had very open criteria, especially as it related to MSS services. So, it was about the implementation of a MSS system with a complementary ground component. The satellite and the ground components of the system work on an integrated basis. We have discussed for a long time what is the best way to use this award, so we decided a system for aviation. We think this is totally compatible with the possibilities of the framework. We were going to a very competitive business. It is our strong view that we have progressed in accordance with the framework, this has been backed up by every regulatory body in Europe. There is nothing wrong in the way we implemented the system.”

However, Eutelsat continues to believe that it has strong arguments, and the fact, that the Conseil d’Etat is referring its questions to the European Court of Justice is evidence in its eyes that there is volition to its arguments. Bocquet adds, “Due to the fact that EAN uses different protocols, one based on a satellite system, the other one based on terrestrial relay antennas, it is hard to see how this could be defined as one set of communications, which is what is required for the usage of S-band under European regulations.”

Bocquet also believes launching an IFC service was not was originally intended for such a license. “The original purpose of S-band was to reduce the digital divide. The policy makers put forward stringent coverage conditions for the benefit of the European citizens. It is required that 50 percent of the population and 60 percent of the areas of each member state is covered by a mobile satellite service,” he said.

Bocquet clearly believes that Inmarsat are not playing by the rules here. “We have clear regulations about mobile satellite services and how they must work, including their definition, purpose and the conditions they must meet. My opinion is that you cannot just decide to change the rules and deviate from the original purpose to another system which can’t be considered as a mobile satellite service, as most of the traffic is through a terrestrial network,” he said.

Brad Swann, Senior Vice Presdent (SVP) of legal affairs, Inmarsat was scathing when it came to Eutelsat’s arguments, and questioned what was behind them. He told Via Satellite, “Eutelsat and Viasat have been trying these arguments for years through regulatory channels but failed. They have exhausted the regulatory channels and have now gone onto legal proceedings, but they are running the same failed arguments.”

One thing both parties agree is that this is not going be resolved anytime soon. A lengthy legal dispute is on the cards. “The matter lies in the hands of the Court of Justice of the European Union and might take several months to be solved,” said Bocquet.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an image of Intelsat headquarters. Intelsat is not involved with this dispute.