Bermuda Secures Caribbean Slot with EchoStar 6 Satellite

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PARIS — The government of Bermuda has secured an orbital slot over the Caribbean following a last-minute agreement with satellite fleet operators EchoStar Corp. of the United States and SES of Luxembourg to move a satellite to the slot before its reservation expired, according to U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) documents and SES.

With an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) deadline on using the slot expiring by mid-year, Bermuda has struck a deal in which SES will create a Bermuda subsidiary to operate Englewood, Colo.-based EchoStar’s EchoStar 6 satellite at 96.2 degrees west.

Now operating under an ITU filing called Bermudasat-1, EchoStar 6 arrived at its new orbital slot in mid-April, making Bermuda the latest government to have real estate in the geostationary arc some 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

Bermuda and the Isle of Man had been competing to build their own satellite communications infrastructures. Both had secured orbital slots, but the positions were too close together to permit interference-free broadcasts without extensive frequency coordination.

With only a combined 32 broadcast channels available between the two governments, prospective partners steered clear of both jurisdictions’ plans, fearing frequency-interference concerns would make any future business case unfeasible.

The Isle of Man, which like Bermuda is trying to attract satellite operators and other space companies to its low-tax, low-bureaucracy jurisdiction, was unable to find a satellite to place into its 95.5 degrees west orbital slot before its deadline expired in 2011. 

That left the road clear for Bermuda. In the past couple of years, the maritime market for satellite operators has grown rapidly and opened up for once-landlocked service providers like SES. The Bermudasat-1 coverage area as described to the FCC includes the southeast quadrant of the continental United States, the Gulf of Mexico and a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean east of the Caribbean.

In their FCC filing, EchoStar and SES say they intend to use the aging EchoStar 6 “to evaluate and develop new market opportunities in the Caribbean, Latin American and North Atlantic maritime markets” for video and maritime services broadcasts.

EchoStar 6 was launched in 2000. Since 2011, EchoStar has operated it in inclined orbit, a fuel-saving maneuver often employed to extend the life of otherwise healthy satellites by no longer stabilizing them on their north-south axes.

EchoStar earlier had told the FCC that EchoStar 6 would be retired when its operating license expired in mid-2014.

EchoStar said that apart from its advanced age — it was designed to last 15 years in orbit — EchoStar 6/Bermudasat-1 is in good health. Bermuda has rights to operate 16 broadcast channels from the 96.2 degrees west slot and has a pending application with the ITU to operate all 32 of the satellite’s available channels.

Bermuda, SES and EchoStar have pledged that the operations will not interfere with DirecTV Group and Telesat broadcast satellites in the vicinity. There remains a remote possibility that Jamaica, which has reserved slots less than five degrees away, at 92.5 degrees, could place a satellite there and make life difficult for Bermudasat-1.

But to date the Jamaican plan has not resulted in any publicly known satellite contract or license request to move an existing satellite into the Jamaican-registered position.

How long EchoStar 6 can be operated as a direct-broadcast television satellite to land-based customers is unclear, meaning it is unclear when EchoStar and SES would need to invest in a new satellite or find an in-orbit spacecraft to take the place of EchoStar 6. For maritime customers that are already equipped with steerable shipboard antennas, inclined-orbit satellites present less of a problem.

SES and EchoStar have long-standing relations, but Bermudasat-1 appears to be a reversal of their usual relationship. In the past, it has been EchoStar on its own behalf or on behalf of its sister company, Dish Network, that has leased SES satellites over North America for U.S. and Mexican customers of Dish and EchoStar.

It was the arrival of the SES-owned, EchoStar-leased QuetsSat-1 satellite at EchoStar’s 77 degrees west slot that freed up EchoStar 6 for its second life as Bermudasat-1.

As part of the agreement with the Bermuda Ministry of Economic Development, SES created a subsidiary called SES Satellites (Bermuda) Ltd. to develop the Bermudasat-1 business. SES spokesman Yves Feltes said SES views the market as promising but too uncertain to enable the company to commit to a new satellite, at least for now.

The SES operation in Bermuda might be viewed as Bermuda’s way of returning the favor to the government of Luxembourg. Intelsat, the world’s largest satellite fleet operator ahead of SES, moved out of Bermuda to Luxembourg in part because Bermuda was on the U.S. government’s list of dubious tax regimes. Bermuda has since modified its tax policies to bring them more into line with international guidelines.