BRUSSELS — In its first satellite export sale, China’s state-owned space hardware manufacturer has won a contract to build and launch a large telecommunications spacecraft for the Nigerian government in a $311 million deal that Nigeria’s chief negotiator said elicited little serious interest from U.S. and European companies .
The Nigerian National Space Research Development Agency (NASRDA) expects to start formal work on the project with China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing Feb. 21 with a series of meetings in China.
The Nigcomsat-1 contract from Nigeria is an example of that oil-exporting nation’s determination to employ space technology, not in spite of its poverty but because of it, NASRDA Director-General Robert Boroffice said.
He said the spacecraft would be used to harvest contracts from Nigeria-based telecommunications and VSAT operators that today send more than $100 million per year to outside satellite operators. Boroffice said Nigeria will enact legislation to encourage these satellite customers to shift their business to Nigcomsat-1.
The Chinese government is not known to have built a satellite with a communications payload similar to that planned for Nigcomsat-1, but it has built platforms with the help of European payload-component suppliers including Alcatel Space. For China, the development of a satellite-manufacturing capability able to compete on world markets would help not only the satellite-equipment makers but also the builders of China’s Long March rocket series. Chinese rockets are unable to launch satellites with U.S.-made components, placing the commercial-launch market out of China’s reach except for those few spacecraft that do not carry U.S.-built hardware.
Nigeria gained experience in satellite work through a technology-transfer program with Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) that led to the launch of the Nigeriasat-1 Earth observation satellite. Nigeriasat-1 is one of four satellites in orbit as part of the SSTL-coordinated Disaster Monitoring Constellation. Algeria, Turkey and Britain also contributed satellites to the network, and China is expected to add its own spacecraft to round out the five-satellite constellation.
The Nigeriasat-1 experience, during which 15 Nigerian engineers were trained at SSTL, has encouraged Nigeria to go further.
In an interview here Feb. 17 during the International Conference on Space Cooperation, organized by the European Union and the European Space Agency, Boroffice said Nigeria is negotiating a second contract with SSTL for a higher-resolution Earth observation satellite that it will launch as part of a cooperative program with South Africa and Algeria. Boroffice said he is aiming for an optical imager with a 2.5-meter ground resolution.
The telecommunications satellite ordered from China is another example , Boroffice said. NASRDA conducted an open, international competition for the Nigcomsat-1 satellite using Telesat Canada as an intermediary and received expressions of interest from U.S., European, Russian, Israeli and Chinese companies, he said.
The Russian and Israeli bidders were unable to meet the contract terms, which called for a high-powered satellite capable of covering all of Nigeria’s territory in Ku-, C-, L- and Ka-band from the less-than-optimal position of 42 degrees east longitude.
Boroffice said the major manufacturers in Europe and the United States appeared not to believe that the Nigerian government would follow through on the contract work.
He described the visit of one major manufacturer this way: “A senior representative of this company came to visit us and was arrogantly telling us what we needed, and why we didn’t want what our RFP [bid request] said,” Boroffice said. “I told him I was expecting him to ask two questions he didn’t ask, and I posed these questions to him myself: Do you see people living in trees here? Do you see lions or hyenas running in the streets? This company was not taking us seriously.”
Boroffice said U.S. bidders likely hesitated because of concerns about U.S. technology-export law. NASRD had made training of Nigerian engineers a condition of the bids for Nigcomsat-1.
China Great Wall, Boroffice said, was the only bid received by deadline that met the specifications. The contract was signed Dec. 15.
Included in the contract is a $112 million satellite apparently based on China’s DFH-4 platform. The satellite will carry 26 transponders that Boroffice said will carry the equivalent broadcasting power of 44 36-megahertz transponders.
Also included, besides the launch, insurance and a technology-transfer package, is a capacity-backup provision and possible options on a future satellite. Boroffice declined to detail the contract terms. The contract-payment plan, he said, calls for most of the $311 million to be paid out over years following a successful in-orbit delivery of Nigcomsat-1.
Nigeria has a relatively open satellite communications sector that several satellite-fleet operators have targeted. Boroffice said that with the Nigcomsat-1 contract signed, Nigerian government authorities will advise Nigeria-based satellite users that they should not enter into long-term contracts with their current satellite-capacity providers.
Boroffice said Nigeria would be establishing a commercial company to sell capacity on Nigcomsat-1, with up to 40 percent of the equity available to non-Nigerian investors. He said Nigeria is talking to several potential investors.