Skynet 5 satellite Airbus
Skynet 5 satellite. Credit: Airbus

PARIS — Public-private partnerships (PPPs) in satellite telecommunications remains an attractive opportunity that European governments have mostly failed to seize despite PPPs’ relevance at a time of tight government budgets, the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) said.

In a report, “The Development of Public-Private Partnerships in the European Satcom Sector”, released June 6, IFRI said the “disastrous” experience of the PPP planned and then abandoned for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation project should not be held against PPPs in general.

PPPs can take several forms, from a government-owned hosted payload launched on a commercial satellite, to a cost-sharing arrangement on research and development to a guaranteed lease of a satellite system financed by the private sector.

The British government has been Europe’s most active in PPPs, accounting for two-thirds of them conducted by governments in Europe in all sectors combined. Britain is also the nation that outsourced its military’s beyond-line-of-sight telecommunications, including satellite telecommunications, to the private sector in a multibillion-dollar contract with Paradigm Secure Communications, a unit of Astrium Services.

The German government’s SatcomBw and Italy’s Sicral 1B military satellite programs also have relied at least in part on private-sector investment, although to a lesser extent than with the British Skynet 5 military satellite system.

Perhaps made gun-shy by the experience with Galileo, the European Union has not agreed to any PPPs in satellite telecommunications despite the fact that telecommunications is the one space sector that is clearly profitable without massive government support.

The European Investment Bank provided some 225 million euros ($533 million) in backing for a large telecommunications satellite design developed by the French and European space agencies, but the European Commission has not taken the next step.

For IFRI, this is difficult to understand. Satellite telecommunications projects are among the least risky of space investments, and thus the most likely to attract private capital. In addition, telecommunications satellite demand supports Europe’s satellite manufacturing and launch-services industries, both of which have been judged strategic by European authorities.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has taken a few steps toward satellite telecommunications PPPs with its share of the Alphasat project, which was co-funded by industry, and with the Hylas broadband satellite now used by Avanti Communications of London, and the SmallGeo multifunctional satellite platform whose first model was sold to commercial satellite operator Hispasat of Spain.

“ESA invests in the {research and development] and the private sector operator gets a satellite platform ‘for free,’ while dealing with the on-orbit validation process and the exploitation risk,” IFRI said of ESA’s experience.

More recently, ESA has proposed a PPP-type financial arrangement for a data-relay satellite system over Europe that would have commercial, civil-government and military uses. Astrium Services has been selected to operate the system, but financial details have yet to be settled.

IFRI suggests that PPPs could help cash-strapped European defense ministries to deploy satellite technologies by piggybacking a given military capacity on a commercial satellite owned by a private-sector operator.

The hosted-payload idea has been used in Europe and the United States and should be a natural choice for European governments whose budgets do not have much room for dedicated military spacecraft.

ESA and the European Maritime Safety Agency are jointly exploring whether to sponsor, perhaps with a PPP, a constellation of small satellites to be used for maritime surveillance. The satellites would pick up Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships and beam that data to coastal authorities that now must wait for the vessels to come close enough to shore to be detected by ground-based antennas.

Leendert Bal, head of the operations department of the European Maritime Safety Agency, said a satellite-based AIS system would cover ships weighing 300,000 kilograms or more as provided by the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea.

In a debate on maritime security published June 15 by Europe’s Security & Defence Agenda think tank, based in Brussels, Bal said a satellite-AIS system would be a welcome augmentation to current short-range maritime surveillance capabilities.

Gen. Marc Duquesne, deputy director for strategic affairs in the French Defense Ministry, cautioned in the debate that many ships that are supposed to carry AIS either do not or do not maintain the equipment.

“It is commonly accepted that data transmitted this way is either incomplete or incorrect in 70 percent of cases,” Duquesne said, adding that ships under 300 metric tons do not carry AIS terminals.

Duquesne said he nonetheless favored a program putting AIS terminals on radar Earth observation satellites to enable coastal authorities to visualize the ships in question in addition to receiving such AIS data as is available.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.