With $1B Satellite Order, Mexican Gov’t Looks To Change Satmex Relationship

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PONTE VERDA, Fla. — The Mexican government intends to use its three-satellite, billion-dollar contract with Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems to restructure its relations with Mexico’s commercial satellite operator, Satmex, by reducing or eliminating the government’s demand for free Satmex bandwidth, a Mexican government official said.

The official, Juan Carlos Leal Sosa, Mexico’s director for spectrum technology, said the government has concluded that it cannot be “both a shareholder and a regulator” of Satmex, and that it cannot rely on the private sector to provide all the government’s satellite communications needs.

In a Dec. 20 press briefing on the Boeing contract, Leal did not detail how and when Mexican authorities would reduce their longstanding requirement that Satmex provide more than 300 megahertz of bandwidth free of charge to the government as a condition of the company’s operating license.

Leal noted that Satmex, which continues to struggle, has gone through U.S. and Mexican bankruptcy proceedings and likely will need to revamp its relations with the Mexican government. “We will need to adjust the current formula,” he said, adding that the Boeing deal should not be viewed as introducing a government competitor to Satmex’s business.

“We are not trying to compete with Satmex, but we don’t want [the government] to rely on private enterprise,” Leal said. How the government’s three planned MexSat satellites will coexist with Satmex remains to be seen. Satmex for its part is continuing to build a Satmex 8 satellite, with plans to put it into service before the Satmex 5 satellite, now in orbit at 116.8 degrees west, runs out of fuel in late 2012.

On Dec. 29, International Launch Services (ILS) announced it will launch Satmex 8, under construction at Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, Calif., between July and September 2012. Reston, Va.-based ILS said it is “implementing a mission-integration schedule to support a third-quarter 2012” launch on a Russian Proton |rocket.

Satmex has had difficulty in the past two years convincing its debt-holders that investing in new satellite capacity is in their long-term interests. It remains unclear whether Satmex has raised enough cash to finance the full construction, launch and insurance of Satmex 8.

The Mexican government’s decision to order three satellites from El Segundo, Calif.-based Boeing — one of those will be purchased by Boeing from Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. — may be seen as going against a trend in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia. In these regions, governments are weighing whether and how to outsource their telecommunications services to the private sector, either by using commercial satellites or by placing government payloads aboard commercial satellites.

Mexico’s contract with Boeing is valued at $1.032 billion and includes two large L-band satellites to be built by Boeing, one smaller C- and Ku-band satellite from Orbital Sciences, two Boeing-provided Earth stations, network operations facilities and prototypes of user terminals.

Launch services and insurance for the three satellites are not included in the order.

The first satellite, called MexSat-3, will provide 3.5 kilowatts of power to its payload of 12 extended-C- and 12 extended-Ku-band transponders and will be delivered in time for a launch by late 2012. Barron Beneski, spokesman for Orbital, said the company was confident in its ability to meet what appears to be an aggressive construction schedule. The satellite will be operated at 114.9 degrees west.

The two Boeing-built satellites will operate mainly in L-band for mobile communications to Mexican security forces on land, air and sea. The spacecraft, using Boeing’s 702HP satellite platform, will generate 14 kilowatts of power each and will feature 22-meter-diameter L-band reflector antennas. This is the same technology supplied by Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., that is now undergoing in-orbit testing on the Boeing-built SkyTerra-1 satellite launched in November.

Each of the Boeing-built satellites also will carry a 2-meter-diameter Ku-band antenna.

The Boeing-provided ground facilities will employ ground-based beam-forming technology from Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., to aim satellite spot beams to users according to Mexican government requirements, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

The MexSat deal brings to nine the number of large commercial satellites ordered from Boeing since early 2009, not including the MexSat-3 to be built by Orbital. The company booked a four-satellite deal with Intelsat of Washington and Luxembourg in 2009, and won a competition to provide London-based Inmarsat with three large Ka-band mobile communications satellites in mid-2010.

Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, has said the company hopes to use its 702 platform to rebalance Boeing’s satellite contract portfolio from 90 percent government now to something closer to 70 percent government and 30 percent commercial.