The L-band filing at 123 degrees East is one of three satellite programs Indonesia wants to maintain by getting deadline extensions from the coming World Radiocommunication Conference, WRC-19. Credit: Indonesia Ministry of Communications and Informatics

PARIS — The government of Indonesia, which in 2017 stopped rental payments on an L-band satellite it had leased to preserve an Indonesian orbital position for a government connectivity project that was then canceled, wants another chance to fill the orbital slot.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications and Informatics is asking the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Radio Regulations Board to extend by four years, to November 2024, the deadline needed to fill the slot at 123 degrees East.

Credit: Indonesia Ministry of Communications and Informatics

The board is expected to review the request at its next quarterly meeting, scheduled for Oct. 14-18 in Geneva. Indonesia is also asking the ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) for support. WRC-19 is scheduled for Oct. 28-Nov. 22 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

In defense of its request, Indonesia omits all references to the fact that its government is responsible for the fact that the 123 degrees east slot has been empty since November 2017. Instead, the proposal focuses on Indonesia’s geography — 17,000 islands — and its susceptibility to natural disasters.

“Indonesia has faced multiple natural disasters during the last 15 years … [and] has suffered extensive loss of life and heavy economic losses, some of which would have been mitigated had Indonesia had in place an MSS satellite capability,” the ministry said in its petition to the ITU.

“It is also evident… that Indonesia has made various possible efforts to restore these satellite services at the earliest, but the delays have been beyond its control.”

Indonesia’s Garuda-1 satellite was launched in 2000 and occupied the 123 degrees East slot until 2015. During that period, Indonesian military authorities had begun designing SatKomHan, an $800 million system that would provide mobile L-band communications throughout the country.

The now-abandoned SatKomHan L-band satellite looked like this. A commercial version will have similar characteristics.  Credit: SatKomHan Program Office

But SatKomHan was running late, with intermittent funding, and a gapfiller was needed. Available in-orbit satellites with L-band payloads are rare, but Indonesia was lucky enough to find Avanti Communications of London, which had taken over the 22-nation European Space Agency’s Artemis satellite, whose L-band payload Avanti did not need.

Artemis was nearing the end of its life, but it had enough fuel to perform the “bringing into use” or in this case, bringing back into to use, role Indonesia needed it to play. Avanti moved Artemis into the Indonesian slot.

But an apparent disconnect between Indonesian government authorities led to Indonesia’s military stopping payment on the Artemis lease. Avanti of London, already under pressure to retire Artemis to avoid violating British end-of-life satellite-disposal regulations, moved Artemisout of the 123 East slot and later retired Artemis to a graveyard orbit.

Indonesia ultimately paid Avanti a $20.075 million arbitration judgment for nonpayment following a judgment of London Court of Arbitration:

Industry officials had warned that Indonesia, in scuttling the Artemis contract, risked losing the slot for the $800-million SatKomHan government mobile communications project:

Following a separate dispute between Indonesia’s Defense Ministry and its Finance Ministry, the SatKomHan project, with Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor, was likewise abandoned.

Many companies involved with SatKomHan complained that they were left with unpaid SatKomHan bills.

Artemis was moved out of the 123 degrees East slot in November 2017. That restarted the three-year ITU deadline for filling the position with another L-band satellite.

That would be difficult, which is why Indonesia is asking to be given another four years, to November 2024, to occupy the slot with a new satellite.

“Extensive discussions have taken place with various satellite manufacturers for fabrication and launch of a full-fledged, large satellite — a capital-intensive project,” the Indonesian Communications Ministry says in is ITU filing. “It is well recognized that to plan, finance, build and launch an MSS satellite can take about four years.”

In December 2018, Indonesia licensed the 123 E slot to Dini Nusa Kusuma (DNK), a satellite services reseller owned in part by Thomas van der Heyden and Surya Witoelar, who had been program consultants on the SatKomHan project on behalf of the Indonesian Defense Ministry.

The current project is no longer financed by the Indonesian government. It is a commercial venture in which DNK will need to raise the financing to build and launch the satellite.

The Indonesian government would need to commit to a substantial portion of the satellite’s capacity to secure the project financing. Airbus would likely have an advantage among prospective builders.

When payments stopped, so did Airbus’s work on SatKomHan, which made it to preliminary design review but had not begun hardware construction.

How the ITU will react to Indonesia’s request is unknown. The organization in the past has gone to great lengths to protect developing nations’ orbital slot even when those nations have plainly violated the regulations.

One industry official with long experience at the ITU said the WRC-19 conference may well approve the extension, despite the fact that it was not tsunamis, but internal government bickering, that put Indonesia where it now finds itself.

And if WRC-19 doesn’t buy Indonesia’s argument? One possible way out would be to order a small satellite with a single L-band channel that could launch as a supplemental passenger on a rocket carrying a larger satellite to geostationary orbit.

All the L-band cubesat would need to do was operate for three months. After this 90-day period, Indonesia will have secured another three years to finish the larger satellite hat DNK is supposed to order.