New Eutelsat high-throughput Ka-band satellite built by Thales Alenia Space for Africa. Credit: Thales Alenia Space artist's concept

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat on Oct. 28 said it had contracted with manufacturer Thales Alenia Space to build a high-throughput Ka-band satellite to provide Internet connectivity to most of sub-Saharan African starting in 2019.

Paris-based Eutelsat said it had no partners or customers committed to the satellite but that it was sufficiently confident in the pent-up demand in the 30-nation coverage area to begin construction.

Eutelsat Chief Technical Officer Yohann Leroy, in a briefing with reporters, said Eutelsat had several possible Ka-band orbital slots at its disposal but had not yet decided which to use.

The announcement follows Eutelsat’s agreement with Facebook to lease the Ka-band capacity aboard Israel-based Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite, scheduled for launch in 2016 over sub-Saharan Africa. Eutelsat and Facebook have taken out a five-year lease, leaving an overlap in time between the arrival of the new satellite and the end of the current lease.

The order is the first high-throughput satellite for Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy and is based on the company’s Spacebus Neo product line, still in development, which has relied on funding from the French, European, Spanish, British and Belgian space agencies.

Among other features, the satellite will be able to reassign power and capacity to areas of highest demand all along its life, a feature that is sorely lacking in the first-generation high-throughput satellites, which have fixed coverage areas meaning some beams are mainly empty while others, in higher-demand areas, need to turn away new customers.

Eutelsat’s current Ka-Sat spacecraft over Europe and equivalent spacecraft owned by Hughes and ViaSat Inc. in the United States all suffer from this problem, which results in unused capacity.

Leroy said the Thales Alenia Space platform, the first of a second generation of high-capacity satellites, will allow Eutelsat to compensate if, as he said is likely, the company over- or underestimates demand in a given region in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bertrand Maureau, director of Thales Alenia Space’s telecommunications division, said the satellite would carry 65 spot beams with a total throughput of 75 gigabits per second. Using all-electric propulsion, it will weigh 3,200 kilograms at launch — nearly 50 percent less than Ka-Sat, which employs chemical propellant.

In the coming months, as Eutelsat refines its business plan and gets feedback from prospective partners — including Facebook — it may exercise an option to increase the satellite’s capacity to up to 150 gigabits per second.

Leroy said Eutelsat wants to keep launch costs down and that any increased capacity ordered for the satellite will be done so as to maintain launch possibilities on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Arianespace’s Ariane 5 lower berth and a Russian Proton launch.

Leroy said Thales Alenia Space is contracted to deliver the satellite in the first half of 2019. Assuming a six-month transit from the rocket’s drop-off point to final geostationary position — the price for using all-electric propulsion — it would start operations by late 2019.

By comparison, Ka-Sat, in orbit since 2010, has a throughput of about 90 gigabits per second and weighed 6,100 kilograms at launch. That is too heavy for a Falcon 9 and likely too heavy for the less-expensive lower position of the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket.

Leroy said launching with Russia’s Proton rocket, which has more power than needed for a 3,200-kilogram payload, would place the satellite closer to its final destination and reduce the six-month voyage.

Leroy said Eutelsat is unaware of any satellite in development for sub-Saharan Africa that has anywhere near the power of the Eutelsat spacecraft, which as yet does not have a name.

Facebook and Eutelsat have agreed to divide the cost — $95 million over five years — of leasing Spacecom’s Amos-6 Ka-band payload, which totals 18 gigabits per second of throughput and covers portions of 14 sub-Saharan African nations. That price was already viewed in the industry as low, and Leroy said the new satellite order results in per-megabit costs that are much lower still.

Maureau said the satellite, designed to provide 12 kilowatts of power to its payload, will be able to serve 200,000-300,000 users in a mix of consumer residences and small businesses.

The contract puts Thales Alenia Space – which built the O3b Networks medium-Earth-orbit Ka-band broadband constellation – into the market for larger high-throughput satellites, in competition with Airbus Defence and Space of Europe, Space Systems/Loral of the United States and Canada, and Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of the United States.

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