PARIS — Satellite operators leasing capacity for less than $900,000 per transponder per year are almost certainly losing money, and that’s what is still happening in some Asian markets, according to Peter Jackson, AsiaSat’s chief executive.
Even the $900,000 per year figure, Jackson said, assumes that the satellite is fully booked from the time it is launched and that the owner has zero operating costs — an unlikely scenario.
A fleet operator whose satellite has no leases at launch, and who gradually wins business so that the spacecraft is full at the end of its life, has to sell capacity at a rate of about $1.8 million per transponder per year on average to deliver a modest return on the investment over the life of a communications satellite, Jackson said in a Sept. 28 interview.
A typical medium-sized modern communications satellite might have about 50 transponders, last 15 years and cost about $200 million including construction, launch, financing, insurance and ground infrastructure. It would depreciate at a rate of about $13 million a year.
Jackson conceded that there are exceptions to the general rule that a medium-sized satellite with 50 transponders will cost $200 million. His firm, Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, for example, recently paid $95 million for its AsiaSat 5 satellite, under construction by Space Systems’ Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. AsiaSat then negotiated a $45 million launch from Sea Launch Co.’s new Land Launch facility, which operates from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
When launch insurance, interest costs and ground facilities built for AsiaSat 5 are added in, the entire program will cost AsiaSat $180 million. “We got a good deal,” Jackson said. “But we also made sure, as we always do, that our suppliers are making a decent profit. I don’t want to be the money-losing program in their factory.”
AsiaSat, which is minority-owned by fleet operatorGlobal of Luxembourg, has long positioned itself as a firm that holds the line against below-cost pricing in an Asian market where money-losing transponder-lease deals are not uncommon. But AsiaSat too has been obliged to offer what are often called “introductory” prices for a new satellite to ease its entry into the market. The company has done this with its AsiaSat-4 satellite, launched in mid-2003.
The results of the pricing policy have shown up in AsiaSat’s financial reports. The company’s three satellites are operating at higher fill rates now than two years ago, but revenues have not increased correspondingly.
The three AsiaSat spacecraft as of June 30 were 56 percent full, compared to 54 percent at the end of 2005.
Jackson said growing demand for C-band capacity in Asia will have the inevitable effect of pushing transponder lease rates up, even if the basic economics of satellite replacement do not always produce that effect because some operators are offering transponder lease prices that do not reflect replacement costs.
Ku-band, he said, is another story, with continued pressure on prices because of overcapacity.
“The exception to this in the current market is the Middle East, where there is a shortage of Ku-band capacity,” Jackson said. “But this likely will change once the NSS-8 is launched.” SES New Skies’ large NSS-8 satellite, equipped with 46 C-band, 42 Ku-band and 16 spare transponders, is scheduled for launch late this year.
Jackson did not mention any satellite operator in Asia by name when referring to the practice of pricing below replacement cost. But he said he hopes those governments that in the past have built spacecraft for political reasons will now look at the economics more closely.
“The time of building national treasures is over. You’ve got to start building businesses,” Jackson said. “I’m looking at some of these new guys planning to enter the market, and maybe they’ve gotten some inexpensive satellites, but I still can’t see how they’ll get the numbers to work.”