With $1.2B in Financing, O3b Constellation Closer to Reality

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PARIS — Start-up satellite broadband provider O3b Networks, in a feat that some in the industry thought would be impossible only a few months ago, has secured $1.2 billion in financial commitments, making it all but certain that the company’s novel eight-satellite constellation will be built, O3b announced Nov. 29.

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands and using a base of support from early investors including HSBC Principal Investments, Google, Liberty Global and satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, O3b secured funding with the backing of France’s export-credit agency, two separate debt facilities and equity from a South African regional-development bank.

O3b has signed preliminary satellite manufacturing contracts with Thales Alenia Space of Cannes, France — a contract that unlocked Coface support — and expects its first eight satellites to be launched in 2013 into a highly unusual equatorial orbit of about 8,000 kilometers in altitude.

The low altitude of its satellites will enable O3B to provide Ka-band broadband links for telecommunications companies and Internet service providers located in a band centered on the equator without the time delays — known in industry parlance as latency — associated with satellites in the much higher geostationary orbit. O3b has said the first eight satellites alone should be able to generate $200 million or more in annual revenue, a figure that will increase if a decision is made to expand the constellation beyond eight satellites.

Industry officials said Thales Alenia Space has burned through most of the original O3b payment and in recent weeks had slowed its work on the contract to the minimum level needed to maintain its team as it waited for the financial round to close.

O3b Chief Executive Mark Rigolle, the former chief financial officer of SES, conceded that securing the last couple of hundred million dollars in financing proved more difficult than he had foreseen.

“This was essentially project funding, where we were asking to fully fund our business plan,” Rigolle said in a Nov. 26 interview. “We have now funded the capital expenditure, and two-and-one-half years of operating expenses. So we are done. The signatures were actually committed a couple of weeks ago, but we wanted to wait until the money was available before announcing it. That is now done.”

The funding includes about $178 million in previous commitments that O3b has applied to initial system contracts.

With the financing delay having slowed work at the manufacturer, it will be a challenge for O3b to deliver on its promised milestone of getting two groups of four satellites delivered in time for launches, in the first half of 2013, aboard Russian-built Soyuz rockets operating from the vehicle’s new commercial base at Europe’s French Guiana spaceport, industry officials said.

Rigolle said Thales Alenia Space has indicated there is plenty of time to meet the current schedule. “We think our plan for two launches, four satellites each, in the first half of 2013 is solid,” he said.

Rigolle said O3b needs only six satellites to provide continuous coverage in its service area. But because it is more economical to fill the Soyuz rocket with four spacecraft, the initial order was eight. Further four-satellite orders to Thales Alenia Space, or to another manufacturer, will be made as dictated by market demand, Rigolle said.

The Europeanized Soyuz is substantially behind schedule and has accumulated a large backlog of satellites awaiting its arrival at the equatorial launch site. The inaugural launch is scheduled for the first half of 2011.

O3b’s $1.18 billion in funding breaks down this way:

  • $510 million in a senior debt facility, backed by Coface, subscribed by Credit Agricole, HSBC, ING and Dexia.
  • $115 million in senior debt.
  • $145 million in mezzanine debt.
  • $410 million in equity from existing and new investors.

Previous shareholders anteing up for the new financing round include Google, North Bridge Venture Partners, HSBC Principal Investments, Liberty Global and SES, O3b said. SES is the company’s largest minority shareholder and has stated its intention of retaining a 30 percent equity stake that might increase as SES begins providing in-kind services to O3b.

New O3b shareholders include Development Bank of Southern Africa, a South African regional development bank; Sofina, a Belgian investment bank; and Satya Capital of London, a private-equity investor specializing in Africa.

“The amount of new funding and the quality of the investors reflects O3b Networks’ ability to balance important social goals while maintaining the required private-sector returns,” O3b Chairman John W. Dick said in a Nov. 29 statement. “The backing of the world’s leaders in Internet, banking, cable and satellite underlines O3b’s significant role in connecting all the world’s people.”