Inmarsat, citing SpaceX delays, to miss European deadline for aeronautical broadband service

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PARIS – Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat is all but certain to miss a European regulatory deadline for its satellite-terrestrial aeronautical broadband service, raising the possibility that one or more governments could revoke Inmarsat’s rights to the radio spectrum, industry officials said.

Inmarsat said the Europasat/HellasSat-3 satellite, co-owned by Inmarsat and fleet operator Arabsat of Saudi Arabia and built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, has met its construction milestones but is facing delays at launch-service provider SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

It remains unclear when the satellite will be launched, but it will be well after the Dec. 1 deadline imposed by its license and may not occur before mid-2017.

Earlier Falcon Heavy, or later Falcon 9?

“We have been talking to SpaceX about different options,” Inmarsat spokesman Christopher McLaughlin said. “It’s never easy to fix a launch date far in advance but as of now it appears that we can get a Falcon Heavy launch in the first quarter of 2017, or a Falcon 9 launch in the second quarter.”

McLaughlin confirmed that the satellite has encountered no schedule issues and would be ready to launch this year.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is still in development and has never flown. The Falcon 9 is coping with a full manifest that has caused delays for several commercial customers, including Iridium Communications of the United States and Spacecom of Israel.

Inmarsat has kept European governments informed of the program’s status and is confident that, while a penalty of some sort cannot be excluded, its European Aviation Network (EAN), for which the satellite is a key component, will be deployed as planned.

A European industry official whose company is involved with Inmarsat agreed, and assessed the situation in political terms.

“EAN is being managed by a British company, with a satellite built by a French company, a major German company as an operations partner,” this official said. The German partner is Deutsche Telekom, which will operate a 300-site ground network of signal repeaters throughout Europe. The required coverage area is the 28 nations of the European Union, plus Switzerland and Norway.

S-band coveted by terrestrial mobile network operators

Another industry official was less certain.

“Look, the companies involved in this have missed repeated deadlines over the years, and at some point an individual government could decide – after listening to terrestrial mobile interests within its borders – that it’s time to pull the plug on this. Satellite operators are notorious for announcing schedules and capabilities that aren’t realized.

“A government that could generate revenue by auctioning this spectrum to terrestrial operators might very well wish to take this opportunity to do so,” this official said. “At some point, deadlines mean something or they do not.”

The SpaceX launch delay development is the latest glitch on the trouble-filled history of the European Commission’s attempt to assume spectrum and licensing rights otherwise held by each national government.

London-based Inmarsat is one of two companies operating under a commission license to use 30 megahertz of S-band spectrum for mobile satellite services. The other company is Solaris Mobile of Dublin, Ireland, which in 2013 was purchased by EchoStar Corp. of Englewood, Colorado.

Solaris and Inmarsat have both missed several regulatory deadlines for bringing their networks into service, for multiple reasons.

Solaris, then owned jointly by two of the world’s top three satellite fleet operators, SES of Luxembourg and Eutelsat of Paris, launched an S-band payload aboard a Eutelsat satellite in 2009 as part of its license requirement. But a defect in its antenna limited its coverage of European territory to below the regulatory minimum.

Never strong believers in the business case, SES and Eutelsat sold their S-band rights under the license to a British subsidiary of EchoStar.

Charlie Ergen values mobile spectrum in Europe as in the U.S.

EchoStar is owned by Charlie Ergen, who also owns satellite-television broadcaster Dish Network and has become a regular player in the years-long poker game over the value of mobile spectrum in the United States.

EchoStar’s purchase of TerreStar Networks in early 2014 came with the in-orbit TerreStar-1 S-band satellite and a second satellite yet to be launched. It is this TerreStar-2 satellite, now renamed EchoStar-21, scheduled for launch in October aboard an International Launch Services Russian Proton rocket, which will allow EchoStar to meet its license obligations to European governments.

The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on July 29 announced that the launch, which had been scheduled for Aug. 29, had been rescheduled to Oct. 10 to give Proton’s manufacturer the time to analyze an anomaly in Proton’s previous launch.

EchoStar had told European regulators that iat would take about two months to perform in-orbit verifications of the satellite before starting commercial service, so Solaris/EchoStar is also likely to be at the limit of European governments’ Dec. 1 deadline.

Beyond the unknown future value of having mobile communications spectrum throughout Europe, EchoStar’s immediate plans for Solaris are unclear.

For Inmarsat, EAN is intended to position the company as the equivalent in Europe of Gogo Inc. of Chicago. But whereas Gogo began with a network of ground transmitters for airline passenger connectivity before adding satellite capacity, Inmarsat started on the satellite side and is only now adding the ground component.