Launch & Satellite Contract Review | High-throughput Helps Boost Satellite Orders

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PARIS — Twenty-three geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites were placed under firm contract worldwide in 2013, up from 16 in 2012, as more developing nations continued to establish their own domestic satellite systems.

Also feeding the increase was the increasing popularity of high-throughput satellites, which thanks to Intelsat and Telesat (and Thaicom before them) are now available in Ku-band, not only Ka-band.

For 2013, two new governments, Sri Lanka and Angola, took the plunge by ordering their own spacecraft, to be built by Chinese and Russian manufacturers in deals that included launch services. Indonesia’s Indosat, after a long wait, ultimately decided to order a replacement Palapa satellite, the Palapa-E, from Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

Brazil’s long-anticipated SGDC national military/civil program was finally contracted as well, with Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, after a hard-fought international competition.

Who’s next? There is a long list of nations rich and poor that have hired consultants or otherwise signaled their interest in using their slice of geostationary orbit — assuming they can find one and coordinate frequencies with neighboring satellites — to start a domestic telecommunications satellite business.

2013 Commercial Satellite Contracts

Last year was also when high-throughput satellites became popular for uses beyond their initial market of providing consumer broadband to unserved or underserved populations.

EchoStar/Hughes and ViaSat Inc. in the United States, both with growing consumer broadband businesses, ordered new satellites, confirming their belief in the business.

Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, meanwhile, ordered four satellites from Boeing Space and Intelligence as part of Intelsat’s Epic product line, using Ku- and C-band frequencies in little-used orbital slots to provide a broadband overlay to new and existing customers. Mobile markets are especially targeted by the Epic satellites.

Canada’s Telesat followed suit, ordering from Airbus Defence and Space — the former Astrium — the Telstar 12 Vantage satellite, which appears similar in concept to Intelsat Epic.

Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat of London, which had hesitated before pulling the trigger on a fourth Global Xpress Ka-band broadband satellite, returned to Boeing in 2013 for the fourth spacecraft. This satellite would be necessary if one of the three original Global Xpress satellites were to fail, and Inmarsat says the fourth copy will permit growth of the service in the event the first three are successfully placed into operation.

Australia already has ordered its own pair of high-throughput satellites through NBN Co., and Russian satellite operators either have ordered or are about to order Ka-band spacecraft for the Russian consumer broadband market.

The Brazilian government will use its SGDC satellite’s Ka-band payload for consumer broadband in addition to its X-band payload’s provision of military communications.

Does all this constitute a bubble in high-throughput or emerging-market conventional satellite capacity? 

The major fleet operators say no. Not all satellite bandwidth is created equal, they say, and not all business plans are sound. For every success story like Vinasat of Vietnam there are less-successful undertakings such as Venesat in Venezuela and Nigeria’s Nigcomsat, which despite having large satellites in orbit do not appear to have made much impact in their regional markets or put downward pressure on transponder-lease prices.

The dubious commercial viability of a one- or two-satellite business is well-known. Less clear is whether the new government sponsors care about that. Some have made universal broadband access a government policy and may not require their operators to report a profit.

One expected development, a new commercial order for an all-electric satellite, did not occur in 2013. It has been nearly two years since Boeing’s four-satellite contract with ABS of Hong Kong and Mexico’s Satmex for all-electric spacecraft paired with SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

But it’s clear that even without concrete new orders, electric satellites and their offer of 40 percent weight savings and less-expensive launcher services are on the horizon as a major industry force.

Several satellite builders have announced their own all-electric designs, and the two largest commercial-launch providers, Arianespace of Europe and International Launch Services of the United States, are fine-tuning their offers to accommodate all-electric designs.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes