Editorial: The Curse of S-band

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The satellite telecommunications sector has enjoyed an impressive run in recent years, racking up robust profits and expanding while the global economy was contracting.

But when it comes to exploiting S-band frequencies, this highly capable and dynamic industry is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

The “S” in S-band — a swath of spectrum in the 2-4 gigahertz range traditionally used by governments — might as well stand for snakebitten. Just about anyone who has dabbled in it since the early 1990s has run aground in one way or another. Even now, with the satellite industry mature and having learned some harsh lessons from the late 1990s telecom collapse, S-band stubbornly remains a Death Valley for investors, a riddle for regulators and a bonanza for lawyers.

Three large S-band satellites have been built and launched and now resemble any boomtown gone bust: no occupants. Others sit on factory floors or in storage facilities.

S-band has been a good route to bankruptcy or litigation. Just ask ICO, which in its various incarnations has been involved in at least two bankruptcies and two lawsuits, one against European regulators and one against its satellite prime contractor.

ICO Global Communications was one of the first S-band commercial ventures to feel the hex. The Inmarsat spinoff set out in the mid-1990s to deploy a 16-satellite system designed to provide global mobile telephone services. The result: a bankruptcy, a lawsuit, one launch failure, one satellite on orbit, and a dozen others — the “ICO forest” — now piled up in a storage facility in various states of completion.

Satellite radio was another early adopter. Rivals Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio appeared well positioned to wrest a share of the U.S. market from the fat and happy terrestrial radio conglomerates content to saturate the nation’s airwaves with homogenous programming. But Sirius and XM nearly did themselves in with their own reckless spending as they jockeyed for on-air talent and content, and in 2008 merged amid growing indications one or both would otherwise fail. The merged Sirius XM Radio now faces stiff competition from MP3 players and Internet radio. Its stock, once a Wall Street darling, hasn’t been north of $2 in two years.

Governments have tried to help. The U.S. government gave several companies access to large swaths of radio spectrum free of charge — cellular companies had to buy their spectrum at auction — to deploy what some argue are essentially nationwide terrestrial 4G networks augmented by satellite. Two of those companies, DBSD and TerreStar, are pursuing S-band hybrid networks. Both launched large satellites that are healthy in orbit; both are in bankruptcy, having failed to raise the financing necessary to deploy their respective ground segments. This is despite the fact that U.S. regulators have waived requirements that the companies argued discouraged investment.

Enter satellite television mogul Charlie Ergen. Never shy about throwing money around, Mr. Ergen in February offered $1 billion for DBSD, a move that, given his holdings in TerreStar, raised the possibility that the two would be combined into a single company with two satellites on orbit, 40 megahertz of S-band spectrum and dramatically improved prospects for financing a nationwide network of ground-based signal repeaters. But some of DBSD’s shareholders balked at the takeover, and at the same time Mr. Ergen agreed to buy Hughes Communications. He subsequently renounced his interest in DBSD. His ambitions for TerreStar remain unclear.

Perhaps Mr. Ergen had a lingering bad taste in his mouth from a previous S-band foray: The Ergen-controlled EchoStar ordered a large S-band satellite from Space Systems/Loral for the CMBStar mobile television venture in China, but was forced to suspend work on the project following what EchoStar said was the Chinese government’s failure to honor its commitment to the project. EchoStar continues to look for a new owner or application for the nearly completed satellite. Another tree in the forest.

S-band has fared no better in Europe. The European Commission stumbled through its licensing of S-band mobile broadband systems, one of the highlights being a lawsuit from ICO, which sought to halt the proceedings on grounds that it was unfairly passed over despite being the only applicant with an S-band satellite on orbit — the ICO F2, launched in 2001. Two licenses were awarded, one to Inmarsat and the other to Solaris Mobile, a joint venture of satellite operators SES and Eutelsat whose business plan was based on an S-band antenna on Eutelsat’s W2A satellite launched in April 2009. As bad luck would have it, that antenna has a defect that will prevent Solaris from meeting a key condition of its S-band license: reaching 60 percent of European Union territory by May 2011. Commission officials have been reluctant to modify Solaris’ license because of the ICO lawsuit, which is still pending.

Inmarsat, fearing regulatory uncertainty and a challenging business plan, has made no serious investment in its EuropaSat S-band project.

Meanwhile, the individual European Union countries have yet to adopt their own S-band rules, adding further uncertainty to the regulatory environment. SES and Eutelsat have no plans to place S-band capacity aboard another satellite.

In India, plans to deploy a pair of government-owned S-band satellites were engulfed in controversy when allegations surfaced that Antrix Corp., the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), had given a sweetheart deal to Devas Multimedia to lease 90 percent of the satellites’ capacity for commercial use. The Indian government in February killed the deal, leaving Devas, whose management has close ties to ISRO, feeling jilted and threatening to sue. The satellites remain under construction, ISRO says, but will be used for government services including national security, transportation infrastructure support and public utilities.

The would-be S-band industry has seen some bad luck, to be sure, but its woes are at least equally attributable to bad decisions. Amid the wreckage, however, is a small example of hope: SES, which purchased the Protostar-2 satellite at a bankruptcy auction, has managed to lease the S-band payload on that satellite to MCI Indovision of Indonesia. As far as victories go, it’s a modest one when measured against the scale of the failures. But it’s a toehold that demonstrates that S-band is a resource with value. If the satellite industry doesn’t find a way to exploit it, someone else will.