In the face of possible competition from a Washington-based company, Intelsat, the international satellite telecommunications consortium, has asked the State Department to see whether such competition would violate existing international telecommunications agreements.

A letter sent by Intelsat's director general to Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam reportedly challenges the legality of the Orion Satellite Corp.'s application before the Federal Communications Commission that seeks permission to launch a transatlantic satellite system for private data and video transmissions. Currently, Intelsat's global satellite network carries two-thirds of the world's telephone and computer data traffic and virtually all international television transmissions.

The letter, which both Intelsat and the State Department declined to release formally, is a surprise in light of Intelsat's earlier statements that, as an international organization, it would not become involved in any country's domestic telecommunications decisions. An Intelsat spokesmen had said that the telecommunications consortium would file comments with the State Department should the FCC actually approve Orion's petition.

In effect, Intelsat argues that Orion's application violates Article XIV of the Intelsat Treaties, which Intelsat interprets as disallowing any international satellite networks that might impair the economic or technical health of Intelsat. Orion argues that it is a complement rather than a competitor to Intelsat.

"The Orion application puts a more immediate focus on something we've been looking at for some time," says Ambassador Diana Lady Dugan, the coordinator of the senior interagency group on international communications and information policy. The group is looking at the role of deregulation in international telecommunications. Dugan has sent a letter to the FCC asking that it delay consideration of Orion's application pending a State Department and interagency review. However, says Dugan, the State Department letter was drafted independently of the Intelsat request. Dugan declined to comment on Intelsat's reasons for sending a letter at this time.

Neither State Department nor FCC action on the Orion petition is expected in the next few weeks.