Inmarsat Negotiating S-band Hosted Payload Arrangement with Arabsat

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WASHINGTON — Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat is negotiating with fleet operator Arabsat on the placement of an Inmarsat S-band payload aboard Arabsat’s Hellas Sat 3 satellite to provide mobile broadband service in Europe, industry officials said.

Hellas Sat 3 is one of four spacecraft for which Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat issued requests for bids the week of March 10. Hellas Sat 3 would be located at 39 degrees east and used by Arabsat-owned Hellas Sat of Greece to expand its coverage.

Arabsat Chief Executive Khalid A. Balkheyour, in an interview in Washington March 13, declined to comment on the negotiations but said the Hellas Sat 3 program would move forward as scheduled, and was not dependent on any third-party payload. Balkheyour allowed, however, that a hosted payload opportunity for Hellas Sat 3 “would of course be welcome.”

Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat senior vice president for external affairs, said March 12 that Inmarsat would have no comment on plans for its S-band license.

Five years after receiving an S-band mobile broadband license from the European Commission, London-based Inmarsat is feeling a fresh urgency to act given commission regulatory deadlines and the January purchase, by EchoStar Corp., of a competing S-band licensee in Europe.

Englewood, Colo.-based EchoStar acquired Dublin-based Solaris Mobile Ltd. from fleet operators SES of Luxembourg and Eutelsat of Paris after those companies concluded that developing an S-band mobile broadband network in Europe was overly complicated and costly.

EchoStar has said it will use its TerreStar-2 satellite, originally built for one of two S-band mobile projects in the United States that EchoStar purchased out of bankruptcy, to fulfill the regulatory requirements of its European license. The Solaris S-band payload in orbit since 2009 has a defect on its large antenna that renders it incapable of meeting the coverage and power requirements demanded by the European Commission.

Placing an S-band payload on Hellas Sat 3 would provide Inmarsat with a relatively inexpensive path to orbit and satisfy its license requirements. But the company has said during the past five years that it would build an S-band payload only if it had secured backing from terrestrial telecommunications network providers.

The two S-band ventures in the United States both ran aground because they could not find partners willing to help finance the thousands of terrestrial towers needed to assure service availability in areas beyond the line of sight of the satellite.

After years of debate, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ultimately accepted the arguments of EchoStar that the satellite investment, needed for emergency communications in a disaster, is a liability from a business point of view and is only viable if the license holder is allowed to use the same spectrum for a terrestrial network. To assure the creation of the satellite network, the FCC concluded, operators must be able to develop an independent ground network, which is where the money is.

The European Commission has not gone that far yet, in part because SES and Eutelsat, preoccupied with their own fixed satellite services businesses and facing the disqualifying defect on their joint S-band payload, never pursued the matter.

Whether Inmarsat will be able to line up investment partners for its S-band ground network in time to meet Hellas Sat 3’s schedule is unclear. Inmarsat management has told investors it is about to enter into a period of less-intensive capital spending as its new Ka-band satellites are launched.

 

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