PARIS — Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat on Dec. 19 filled a big gap in its preparations for the Ka-band Global Xpress system by signing Astrium Services, long its biggest distributor, to a strategic agreement on Global Xpress distribution.

Astrium Services, which on Jan. 1 is changing its name to Airbus Defense and Space, became London-based Inmarsat’s biggest distributor in late 2011 with the billion-dollar purchase of Vizada.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., bested Astrium Satellites, Astrium Services’ sister company, in the competition to build the Global Xpress satellites. The first Global Xpress spacecraft was launched Dec. 8 and two more are scheduled for launch in mid-2014. 

Spaced about 120 degrees apart on the geostationary arc 36,000 kilometers above the equator, the three spacecraft will allow Inmarsat to offer full Ka-band mobile broadband services worldwide, except for the polar regions, by late 2014. Boeing recently signed a contract to build a fourth Global Xpress satellite.

In return for the manufacturing contract, Boeing signed a take-or-pay agreement with Inmarsat under which it would guarantee the sale of Global Xpress services to U.S. government customers for the first five years of Global Xpress operations.

Industry officials said Astrium did not make such a commitment, but instead will be a favored value-added distributor of Global Xpress to Astrium’s large customer set. 

Combining its Vizada-heritage L-band distribution network and its X- and UHF-band military communications services offered through Britain’s Skynet fleet and operator Telesat’s Anik G1 satellite over the Pacific region, Astrium Services is a major presence in the mobile satellite services sector.

Given its position, Astrium was long expected to sign on quickly as a Global Xpress distributor. But on the military side, its anchor customer, the British Defence Ministry, has yet to express a formal requirement for Ka-band connectivity.

In a joint Inmarsat-Astrium Services statement on their agreement Dec. 19, the companies said Astrium will provide Global Xpress “to key vertical markets including the maritime as well as the government and defense sector, initially in Europe.”

Boeing’s agreement with Inmarsat gives Boeing the right to sell Global Xpress to U.S. military users, regardless of where they are.

Astrium officials have long said they are “agnostic” about which frequencies they employ on behalf of their customers. That left open the possibility that Astrium would sign on with Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat to distribute Intelsat’s Epic high-throughput service, which uses C- and Ku-band frequencies.

Negotiations on the final agreement turned on whether Astrium would pre-purchase capacity as Boeing had done, and if not what price discounts in Global Xpress bandwidth would be granted Astrium to take to its distribution base.

Astrium Services Chief Executive Evert Dudok said the Inmarsat agreement “is the natural continuity of a long-standing partnership” between the two companies. “Astrium Services has been Inmarsat’s number-one distribution partner since we acquired Vizada in December 2011. We are eager to continue this strong relationship.”

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.