What do we want with the satellite slots?

PM Lord Tuivakano, pressured to nationalise satellite slots and violate international law (taimionline)

Prime Minister Tu’ivakano. taimionline

It is unclear what popular candidates want with Tonga’s satellite orbits.

The orbits on their own do not make any money for government. If they don’t make money, they cost money, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will take them back, as the orbits don’t belong to any country.

Tonga’s registered geosynchronous orbits are at 134˚ and 138˚ East (first on the longitude that cuts the “Bird’s Neck” as West Papua and meets the Equator, the other 4 degrees down from that. Shown on picture.)



The only way the orbits are of any use to Tonga, is when communication companies ‘park’ their satellites in those orbits to convey radio communications.

But at least two points on the ground would have to need to communicate via satellite, in enough traffic amounts, to warrant the cost of putting up a satellite in the orbits above them.

The “Rise of Asia” signalled coming better days in satellite communications business, as more activity and business was envisioned in East Asia and Western Pacific.

The job to make sure that companies park their satellites in Tonga’s registered orbits, was given to Tongasat–a private venture majority-owned by Her Royal Highness Princess Pilolevu Tuita.

Tongasat was commissioned by the Tongan government, to do the marketing of the orbits. Even though, it was only because of Tongasat and bold risk-taking, business acumen of the company and its members, that the ITU gave Tonga any orbits at all. [Marketing anything, has never been the Tongan government’s best suit anyway.]

Two prominent election figures are calling to halt the “outright sale” of Tonga’s orbital slots, and ‘return the people’s properties [to the people]’.


Mele ‘Amanaki, President, Public Servants’ Association. coup4.5

Prominent populist MP ‘Akilisi Pohiva, (Chair of Paati Temokalati ‘Otumotu Anga’ofa, PTOA or Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands), and Mele ‘Amanaki (President, Public Servants’ Association and lead candidate of Tongan Democratic Labour Party), are rallying popular demonstration and calling for public protests against the alleged intended “sale” by government.

Very recently, the two leaders have lodged civil suits with the Supreme Courts, against the government and Tongasat, demanding that Tongasat return monies “illegally” drafted to it previously by government. (It is likely the payments were made as the marketing fees.)

‘Amanaki has openly called for the return of funds for a pay rise of her organisations’ members salaries.

Prior to that, Pohiva lodged criminal charges of ‘larceny’ for the above alleged transactions. The Magistrate’s Court acquitted Tongasat, and the Supreme Courts did not allow an appeal. As a result, HRH has filed against Pohiva, counter-claims of malicious litigation.


‘Akilisi Pohiva, Chairman, PTOA. TVNZ

First, the two politicians are not happy that the Princess specifically is operating the country’s geo-synchronous orbital slots. This implies that they don’t want her company operating the satellite business.

But when she moves to divest in the satellite orbits business and have nothing to do with it, they are demanding the process be halted.

An intended mistranslation that the two politicians are exploiting is the use of the word “sale”. Tongasat may have signalled government that it wants out. Government wants to make sure there is a working replacement, and Tongasat wants to ‘re-finance’ its investments in the satellite business. All is in accord with modern business protocols, fair, and best practices. It is reported that this process has been initiated, hence the call for protest.

Another mistranslation is “the property of the people”. Even the best attempt to translate that into ‘public commons’ fails. Geo-synchronous orbits belong to the ITU, and not to any country. They exist very far (altitude of 35,000 km), and only hover along the Equator (very far from Tonga, as illustrated above). A country’s sovereign airspace is only up to 100km above sea-level. The description by politicians implies that orbital slots are natural assets, let alone national assets. Nothing can be more misleading. Tonga’s registered orbital slots with the ITU are beyond any sovereign airspace, and are not even above Tonga. So why the intentional confusion?

Effect on Foreign Direct Investments

Politicians will say anything to get elected.

The politicians have been condemning HRH Pilolevu for operating Tonga’s orbits. So, fine, she says she’ll get out of it. To leave, she has to divest the business, but then the politicians want her not to leave? Wait, what? They want her to not run satellite orbits, but they don’t want her to get rid of them?

The only alternative is the taking of the satellite business by government, where it will likely soon be taken back by the ITU as the government doesn’t have the expertise to market and manage the slots. A lot of other organisations, especially those who wanted the slots for themselves, would be delighted to see Tonga lose its stake. Many bigger players weren’t happy that Tonga staked a successful claim in the global commons in the first place and they would be happy to see Tonga fail, thereby discouraging other smaller countries from trying to ‘punch out of their league’.

Also, if the government takes the slots, it can be seen as a move at nationalisation. In spite of the domestic rhetoric about TongaSat, outside investors know the truth about these not being ‘natural assets’ but rather a legitimate business. A politically motivated seizing will set off alarm bells.

From a foreign investor’s point of view, if the government can go after a legitimate business run by the country’s own Princess, what’s going to protect their own investments? Seizing assets runs counter to all the investments made by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, IMF etc. to help Tonga open up to the world and do business.

Popular politics knows no bounds

It’s election year, and politicians will say anything to get elected. Albeit, at social hurt and economic cost to the country. The amount of misinformation, humiliation, and disinformation involved in the campaign against Tongasat is astounding.

The attack on Pilolevu seem to be just because she’s Princess, and the main purpose of the two politicians seems to be to gain some sort of political legitimacy and political capital in an election year.

The two politicians are using the stage to boost the their own visibility and that of their parties after serious popular setbacks because of party infighting. One leader is accused by opponents of never succeeding in legislating any Bill in Parliament, and the other of running public enterprises into the ground. Both of which are a waste of government’s (which means Tongan’s) property and money.

Tonga’s economy is sliding and yet so far the only economic strategy of Tonga’s ‘democratic’ leaders has been block any movement on one weakened company — a move that itself might eventually lead to the asset itself being lost, a downgrading of Tonga’s investment profile, and embarrassment in the international arena.

So far, the democratic leaders have issued no economic policy, strategy or vision — except a recent declaration by Pohiva in his newspaper saying that the only way to grow the economy is to stop corruption.

But if misleading the populace for personal gain is not corruption, what is?


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