Saturday, June 20, 2009

satellite's gone, way up to Mars...

We keep hearing that the Iranian government, or at least one of the competing centres of power within it, is trying to jam satellite TV downlinks and harassing the owners of satellite dishes. The BBC World Service and Al-Jazeera have reportedly both been targeted, specifically as they both use one of the HotBird satellites over the Middle East; the BBC has reportedly been urgently buying capacity on other satellites in order to maintain the service.

But I'm interested to know if anyone has heard of similar interference directed at any of the voice/data land mobile satellite services, such as INMARSAT, Thuraya, Iridium, and Globalstar. These provide a GSM/GPRS or DSL-like link, with several voice channels and - depending on the precise product - between one or more 56Kbits data channels and up to 492Kbits IP-on-demand on the INMARSAT BGAN service. It comes at a price, but there are about one million public subscribers, heavily concentrated in the Middle East/North Africa/South-West Asian area. (Hell, even the Taliban have them.)

So far, I've been unable to substantiate any report of jamming of these services.

In Iran, the monopoly wholesale telco is also the local Thuraya reseller, which even in normal times can make buying prepaid airtime a troublesome process.

At that moment we found ourselves in Iran. The only official Thuraya dealer is located in Tehran – which is Asia Telecom. Not really a fun drive when it’s winter and we had no reason to go there anyway. But the Thuraya website lists a 24 hr service number in Iran for Thuraya subscribers so we took a chance.

Expecting a ‘Farsi only’ operator we got connected with an English speaking support desk. The result of this call amazed us. A Thuraya scratch card number is sent to us by a SMS text message after a bank deposit at the account of Asia Telecom. The deposit slip has to be faxed to Asia Telecom including the Thuraya phone number. To re-confirm the Iranian top-up procedure we received a SMS from Asia Telecom with the account number, fax number and the conversion rate of US$ to Iranian Rials. Thank you Asia Telecom!

In Shiraz we made a 20 unit test deposit (199.000 Rials) and faxed the deposit slip as explained to Asia Telecom. 2 hours later we received the prepaid scratch card number by SMS. It worked seamless with a minimum of hassle. Naturally making the deposit required extensive help of the Melli bank because the deposit itself is a Farsi only matter. After this test deposit we made the required deposits to save our Thuraya number for the coming year.

Telcos. Don't you love 'em? At the moment, you'd have to be certifiably insane to even begin the steps described in that link, which seem designed to either put you off the idea or collect as much information on you as possible. Probably they are. And, of course, the SMS service has been shut down.

But why would the authorities not have jammed a service that alone provides access to the Internet and the global PSTN/PLMN from anywhere, with a form factor that is very much not a broadcast satellite dish? I suspect this is because various bits of the Iranian government are probably significant users of these systems, and other typical use cases include oil'n'gas and also banking. Not having any of their own satellite capacity (yet...), I would expect the government and the military (broadly defined) to make use of these systems quite a lot.

There was also the 2006 Thuraya incident, in which the service, which is provided by an international consortium of Arab telcos, was mysteriously jammed for some time. Engineering investigation showed that the source of the interference was somewhere in Libya, which had rather worrying consequences for some engineers who attempted to trace it. The kicker in the story was that Libya is a shareholder in the system it was interfering with, a considerable diplomatic embarrassment.

Perhaps they are trusting to the fact that the service is far from cheap. BGAN IP traffic runs at £9.50/MByte and the terminals are ridiculously expensive (oddly, they also seem to cost the same price in USD or sterling - funny how that happens); Thuraya and Iridium rates are much better, but you get what you pay for in terms of data rates, the service being usually analogous to GSM/GPRS. (But if the aim is to keep twittering, broadband is hardly an issue.) There is, however, 144Kbits service available from Thuraya as well, at a more reasonable $6.00/MByte.

Oddly, the US Department of the Treasury would want words with you if you provide ISP services to Iranians, so presumably Iridium would be ruled right out. If you're an American, that is. But I can't see that this would apply to anyone who decided to, say, start collecting pre-paid vouchers that then found their way to Iran. Unless Daniel Pipes is making the decisions.

Update: Evgeny Morozov win.

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