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Tonga Maneuvers To Save Slot

By | January 13, 2003

      Criticism that the tiny island nation of Tonga has been warehousing orbital slots without using them may be muted a bit after the country recently bought from Seattle Scientific Corp. a satellite that has been deployed at one of the country’s International Telecommunication Union-approved in-orbit locations.

      The acquisition of the satellite is a step forward for Tonga, which signed a pact with Needham, Mass.-based General Dynamics Network Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics [GD], to provide engineering and flight-operations services for the first of several commercial communications satellites that would be deployed. Doubters about Tonga’s good intentions, however, can point to the satellite’s advanced age and suggest that it is merely a placeholder to prevent the ITU from taking the slot away from the country.

      Purchased by the Friendly Islands Satellite Communications Ltd., also known as Tongasat, the satellite was built by the former Hughes Space and Communications that later was acquired by The Boeing Co. [BA].

      The spacecraft, previously called Parallax, has been renamed ESIAFI-1 and will provide telephone, data and other communications services. ESIAFI-1 has been moved to 70 degrees E, one of nine geostationary orbital slots that Tonga has sought to use through previous filings with the ITU. Tonga is a Polynesian nation of 100,000 people in the South Pacific governed by a royal family that has a financial stake in Tongasat.

      Waning Lifespan

      The usefulness of the satellite at a point in its life span when most other spacecraft would have exhausted their design life is an open question. Seattle Scientific acquired the bird from Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] to provide satellite links for the Parallax Project that was intended to transmit real-time “black box” data from aircraft to ground facilities and to U.S. government agencies, said Andrea Maléter, technical director at Bethesda, Md.-based Futron Corp.

      The spin-stabilized satellite was launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Feb. 21, 1981, aboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket and now is in an inclined orbit of roughly seven degrees, Maléter said. The spacecraft previously had operated at 75.4 degrees W longitude.

      For General Dynamics, the three-year, multi-million dollar deal it signed with Tongasat to operate the satellite and provide around-the-clock monitoring is a business opportunity worth pursuing. General Dynamics has an existing commercial satellite control facility in Las Cruces, N.M., to perform the engineering functions.

      The company’s engineers will be responsible for ensuring the safety and health of the satellite, troubleshooting and providing commands for orbital station keeping. The company also will support the Tongan government by helping Tongasat to identify customers to use the satellite’s transponders and to assist in the evaluation of other potential satellites to be moved into Tonga’s remaining orbital positions, they explained.


      Future satellites also may be positioned to provide voice, video and data for the numerous small island nations in that region of the Pacific, General Dynamics officials said.

      The arrangement gives General Dynamics a chance to provide not only operational and engineering support, but also assistance with Tongasat’s “business expansion plans,” said Ken Osborne, director of advanced programs for General Dynamics.

      “We believe this partnership has tremendous potential for both entities,” Osborne said.

      At the company’s ground facility in New Mexico, General Dynamics provides satellite services to civil, commercial and military customers around the world. Its performance record includes 30 years of satellite operations, engineering, ground systems and teleport services, for customers that include NASA, the U.S. military and commercial businesses.

      The hiring of General Dynamics to support the operation of the satellite and any others that are purchased in the next three years adds legitimacy to Tongasat’s efforts. However, the purchase of an old satellite with little life left to provide commercial service to retain use of an orbital slot leaves skeptics unsatisfied.

      Questionable Actions

      “I try to live by the motto that the questionable actions of people are attributable to errors in human judgment or incompetence and not motivated by malice, scheming or manipulation,” said Roger Rusch, heads the TelAstra Inc. consultancy of Palos Verdes, Calif. “In the case of Tonga, I might be willing to make an exception.”

      Some have expressed the view that Tonga is following legal procedures to reserve spectrum, Rusch said. However, the reality appears to be that Tonga, as a national policy, intends to profit by “trafficking” in orbital slots, he added.

      “The ITU has a coordination process that permits nations to register intended satellites,” Rusch said. “Unless the satellite is in orbit and in operation in nine years, the registration is voided. In the case of several slots registered by Tonga, the time might have run out. Consequently, Tonga may have salvaged a satellite and maneuvered it to one of the locations” to save the slot.

      The tiny island nation of 100,000 people has a questionable claim on the need for nine orbital slots to serve its inhabitants and those who live nearby in the Pacific region, Rusch said.

      “Consequently we assume that it is for some other purpose that generates revenue for the kingdom,” Rusch said.

      Mighty Mite

      However, Tonga is not unique as a small nation that has filed for orbital slots with the ITU. Several others have acted on behalf of companies, including Gibraltar, Papua New Guinea and Bermuda, to name a few, Rusch said.

      Jorge Christensen, who heads the Canadian-based satellite consultancy J. Christensen Consultants Ltd., gave Tongasat credit for moving ahead and trying to use one of its slots.

      All administrations, including Tonga, with ITU filings for orbital slots to provide geostationary (GSO) satellite services must bring the frequencies into use before they expire, Christensen said. The regulatory lifetime of a satellite network is six years, plus an additional three-year automatic extension if the advance publication information for the network was filed before Nov. 22, 1997–the date the 1997 World Radicommunication Conference ended, he explained. The regulatory life span of a filing for an orbital slot is five years, plus an automatic two-year conditional extension, if the advance publication information was filed after Nov. 22, 1997, Christensen said.

      “Due to the time required to plan, construct and launch a satellite, there is usually a sense of urgency to bring into use GSO filings with good priority before they expire,” Christensen said. “It is interesting to note that some of the world’s most successful satellite companies, such as SES Astra and AsiaSat, are based in small administrations which can be very responsive to the needs of satellite operators by, for example, having simple domestic regulatory requirements or by preferential tax treatment. The ITU regulatory requirements are, of course, the same for everybody.”

      Royal Treatment

      However, Tongasat is unique, since members of Tonga’s royal family have a direct financial interest in the company, Christensen said. Despite that novelty, Tongasat resembles a private sector initiative more than a traditional government-backed satellite organization, he added.

      For that reason, the Tongasat venture should not be “confused” with other former government backed satellite-operating initiatives, such as Intelsat and Inmarsat, Christensen said.

      Tongasat officials did not respond to requests to share their views.

      –Paul Dykewicz

      (Ken Osborne, General Dynamics, 505/541-7701; Andrea Maléter, Futron Corp., 301/347-3450; Roger Rusch, TelAstra Inc., 310/373-1925; Jorge Christensen, J. Christensen Consultants Ltd., 519/534-3345)

      History Of Tongasat’s ESIAFI-1

      • Originally named Comstar 4D
      • Launched by NASA during February 1981
      • Previously operated at 75.4 degrees W longitude
      • Spin-stabilized satellite built by Hughes
      • Possesses 24 C-Band transponders and a single beam designed for CONUS coverage of the United States
      • Now operates in inclined orbit of some 7 degrees
      • Originally had millimeter wave experimental packages designed to conduct communications tests in the 19 and 28 GHz bands
      • Stands 6.34 meters high, with a diameter of 2.38 meters
      • Liftoff weight at launch was 1516 kg.
      • Purchased from Lockheed Martin in 2001 by Seattle Scientific Corporation
      • Sold in 2002 to Tongasat

      Source: Futron Corp.