Export-Credit Financing Helps Boost 2009 Satellite Orders

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PARIS — Thirty commercial geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites were ordered worldwide in 2009, up from 23 in 2008, with the world’s two largest fleet operators, Intelsat and SES, accounting for roughly 37 percent of the orders as these two companies reached the peak of their current investment cycle.

It was a year that featured rare multi-satellite purchases by Intelsat and SES. Bermuda- and Washington-based Intelsat inaugurated Boeing’s new 702B satellite line with a four-satellite order starting with the IS-22 spacecraft to feature a Boeing-provided UHF payload for Australia’s military.

It remains to be seen whether Boeing will use this order to aggressively re-enter the commercial market, especially with the U.S. Defense Department expected to reduce its satellite buys in the coming years and with the U.S. dollar favoring American manufacturers over their European counterparts.

SES booked a four-satellite order with Astrium Satellites for direct broadcast spacecraft to renew and expand SES’s coverage over Europe. The order came with a loan guarantee from France’s Coface export-credit agency, one of several satellite contracts in 2009 in which Coface’s presence was felt.

Luxembourg-based SES could have secured its satellite financing elsewhere, albeit at a higher price than what is available with the Coface backing. That is less true of Globalstar and O3B Networks, two companies building constellations of satellites for mobile and fixed communications, respectively.

Coface also is a likely partner in the financing of the Yamal 401 and 402 satellites being built by ThalesAlenia Space of France and Italy for Gazprom Space Systems of Moscow, although that financial package had not been fully secured as of late December.

Avanti Communications, a startup satellite-broadband provider, secured Coface and U.S. Export-Import Bank backing for Avanti’sHylas 2 satellite, to be built by Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., and launched by Europe’s Arianespace consortium.

Coface and the Export-Import Bank are also being solicited to help finance the ABS-2 telecommunications satellite for Asia Broadcast Satellite of Hong Kong. Industry officials said this financing also had yet to be put into place as of late December.

A big test of the Ex-Im Bank or Coface, or both, could come in 2010 when Bethesda, Md.-based Iridium Communications is expected to select either Lockheed Martin or ThalesAlenia Space as prime contractor for Iridium’s second-generation constellation of 66 satellites. Iridium officials have said export-credit agency financial assistance could be a factor in their decision.

For commercial satellite manufacturers, the question is what happens now that SES, Intelsat and Paris-based Eutelsat have completed unprecedented satellite-system replacement and expansion cycles and have promised their investors that spending on new satellites will subside.

Government satellite orders in the United States and Europe are unlikely to rise much in the near future once current programs, including Europe’s Galileo timing and navigation system, are put under firm contract.

Three satellites — two of them providing massive throughput — have been ordered to provide Ka-band broadband services in the past two years, and other systems for military and commercial use are being planned. Intelsat and SES have remained notably absent from this market up to now.

High-definition television continues its deployment but cannot by itself maintain a sector in which six U.S. and European manufacturers — plus growing commercial capabilities in Japan, China, Russia, India, South Korea and elsewhere — are fighting for a global market that industry estimates say will remain at 20 to 25 geostationary satellites per year.