Cash-flush Satellite Operators See Divergent Paths to Greater Profits: SES Still Hungry for Acquisitions

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on July 30 said it is weighing expansion in Latin America, Asia and even Canada and has not ruled out using its huge cash flow starting in 2012 to purchase growth, whether by acquisition or by securing new orbital slots.

In a conference call with investors, Luxembourg-based SES reconfirmed that its spending on new satellites, which is peaking this year at 820 million euros ($1.07 billion), will start to fall in 2011 and then drop sharply in the following years, averaging 250 million euros starting in 2014.

Asked whether the increased free cash flow might be used for a special, one-time dividend for SES shareholders, or for share buybacks, Chief Executive Romain Bausch cautioned that SES is still hungry.

In what some investors may view as a threat, and others as a promise, Bausch said the company would above all seek to invest its cash in new growth. He said there are investment opportunities in Latin America and parts of Asia.

Bausch said Telesat of Canada, the world’s fourth-largest provider of fixed satellite services, also may be viewed as an acquisition target.

SES owns a 70 percent economic stake and has 40 percent of the voting rights to Ciel of Canada, whose one satellite is leased to Dish Network of the United States for direct-broadcast television. Because Ciel does not provide television or telecommunications services in Canada, SES’s ownership of it might not be a barrier to an eventual purchase of Telesat, Bausch said.

Bausch said that Telesat’s owners — New York-based Loral and Canada’s PSP pension fund — may be looking for an exit in the next year. The same, he said, is likely true for the private-equity owners of Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington.

An SES purchase of Intelsat almost certainly would be rejected by U.S. regulators given that Intelsat and SES World Skies are the two dominant satellite telecommunications operators in the United States.

Depending on how Canadian regulators view the market, they may consider that an SES purchase of Telesat would not result in undue industry |consolidation.

SES reported revenue of 844.9 million euros for the six months ending June 30, up 4.5 percent from the same period a year ago. EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was up 3.3 percent and equivalent to 74.9 percent of revenue.

The company reiterated its forecast that revenue would increase by 5 percent per year, on average, from 2010 to 2012. The company’s Astra satellites over Europe were 89.1 percent full as of June 30. The SES World Skies division reported a fill rate of 72 percent for the satellites serving North America and 76 percent for its non-North America fleet.

In the short term, SES is focused on shedding its stake in ND Satcom, which provides satellite ground equipment, particularly for government customers. Bausch said the company was in final negotiation with at least two potential buyers and that a sale of all or part of ND Satcom was imminent.

Bausch also said that O3B Networks, a company planning a constellation of low-orbiting satellites to provide Ka-band bandwidth to telecommunications companies in the developing world, and particularly nations along the equator, will complete its debt and equity fund-raising in September or October. The funds will complete the financial package needed to build and launch 20 satellites, and not just the initial tranche of eight spacecraft, Bausch said.