MDA Hoping to Ramp Up OneWeb Work in 2016

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PARIS — Satellite hardware and services provider MDA Corp. of Canada on Oct. 28 said its California-based Space Systems/Loral satellite manufacturing division “has been hit probably harder than anybody else” by the shutdown of the U.S. Export-Import Bank despite SSL’s access to financial support from Canada’s export-credit agency.

MDA also said its new status as a member of the OneWeb Ltd. team – presumably in return for an equity investment that MDA has not disclosed – to date has resulted in no contracts for OneWeb’s 900 satellites. OneWeb is designing a low-orbiting constellation of satellites for global Internet delivery.

MDA’s Montreal facility will be the center of the company’s OneWeb work on satellite payload components. While a small amount of OneWeb money has begun to flow to MDA, a satellite component-supply contract will await OneWeb’s next financing round.

As a 100 percent-owned division of Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA, Palo Alto, California-based SSL is eligible for Export Development Canada (EDC) support even if none of the satellite construction work is directed to Canada, EDC has said.

The Canadian agency is much less active than Ex-Im in satellite project financing, but its availability was one reason SSL recently won an order to build a telecommunications satellite for Azerbaijan.

Competitor Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, has said Ex-Im’s closure for new business since July 1 was an important reason for Orbital’s loss of the contract, to build the Azerspace-2 satellite.

In a conference call with investors, MDA Chief Executive Daniel E. Friedmann said that despite its special status as a California company with both a U.S. and Canadian pedigree, SSL has been dealt a blow by Ex-Im’s shutdown.

“We are not advantaged by EDC access,” Friedmann said. “We’ve been hit probably harder than anybody else by the Ex-Im situation. They are our main source of financing satellites. We haven’t seen [the shutdown] being an advantage for us and we don’t see it as an advantage in the next couple of months.”

Friedmann speculated that a U.S. congressional re-authorization of Ex-Im, which seems imminent, would not lead to an immediate re-engagement of the bank in new projects. It will take time for the bank to restart and to re-evaluate business that had been pending before its closure in June, he said.

Friedmann said that despite the low level of commercial geostationary telecommunications satellite orders so far this year – between nine and 11, depending on the definition of a “new” order – bid activity remains at near-record levels.

“We don’t see any real issues and bidding activity remains high,” Friedmann said. “But things continue to be slow in terms of awards. Many satellites that have been awarded this year have not gone through, including for ourselves.”

Financial hurdles are one reason that awards have not led to contracts, and prospective business in China has been slowed for regulatory reasons, he said. Low-orbiting constellation proposals in addition to OneWeb remain active, although none appears to have made the same progress as OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as a contract,” Friedmann said of MDA’s OneWeb work. “We are working, we are getting paid but we don’t have a fixed-price contract. We’re just a member of the team. The program is proceeding toward defining what it is going to look like and still has to raise a couple of billion dollars, which we’re trying to help with.

“At that point, when things are defined and the financing is clear, there will be long-term contracts for production. I don’t have a date for that. Sometime in 2016 is the target.”

SSL’s win of the Azerspace-2 contract was tied not only to export-credit financing, but also to parent company MDA’s geospatial services business, mainly through products from the Radarsat-2 radar Earth observation satellite. Azerbaijani authorities have said they eventually want their own radar spacecraft, having purchased an optical satellite from France.

MDA recently won a new contract order from an unidentified U.S. government customer for geospatial imagery. The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity agreement has no minimum value but a maximum value of $350 million over five years.

Friedmann said MDA is not the only vendor on this contract but that the company can reasonably hope for between one-third and one-half of the business ultimately put under contract.