PARIS — The recently announced agreement between Facebook and satellite fleet operator Eutelsat to jointly lease Ka-band broadband satellite capacity to provide Internet service to 14 sub-Saharan African nations for just five years leaves unanswered a bigger question for both: Is that all there is?
The social media giant has long spoken of using high-altitude drones — with the business model uncertain — and other platforms to deliver its Internet.org service to unconnected populations, with satellites only marginally in the mix.
The Oct. 5 announcement that Menlo Park, California-based Facebook and Paris-based Eutelsat would purchase the Ka-band capacity on Israeli satellite operator Spacecom Ltd.’s Amos-6 satellite puts Facebook back into the space-based Internet play. But the lease, valued by Spacecom at $95 million over 4.5-5 years, or around $20 million per year, is far more modest a commitment than industry observers had been expecting from Facebook.
For Eutelsat, which has yet to deliver on a promise to launch a successor to its Ka-Sat consumer broadband satellite covering Europe, the announcement that the company would create a U.K.-based subsidiary to manage the African Ka-band business seemed more like a prelude to a bigger deal.
Eutelsat has been in discussions with satellite builders, including Thales Alenia Space, about Ka-band platforms over Africa in addition to adding to the Ka-Sat capacity over Europe. Thales has been working separately on a new line of telecommunications satellites, called Spacebus Neo, with financing from the French and European space agencies, and recently said it is nearing a contract for a large Ka-band high-throughput satellite for an undisclosed customer.
More recently, the French government announced it would submit a proposal to the European Commission this autumn to help finance a constellation of three or four large Ka-band broadband satellites to serve Europe, with Eutelsat the presumed operator. But no telecommunications network operators or others have surfaced to help pay for the project.
The Facebook link-up gives Eutelsat at least the beginnings of a defense of its market ambitions against possible low-orbiting constellations of satellites now being planned, notably by OneWeb of Britain’s Channel Islands. OneWeb has selected Airbus Defence and Space to build its 900 satellites at a U.S.-based facility that has yet to be selected, although Florida is the locale whose name comes up most frequently.
Despite the U.S. production location, OneWeb is almost certain to seek low-cost financing from France’s Coface export credit agency, a development that potentially would place the French government at the center of two competing broadband projects, should Eutelsat find partners for its own constellation in geostationary orbit.
Eutelsat and Spacecom officials described Facebook as a tough negotiator that took months to pull the trigger even on the relatively modest investment with Eutelsat, and consulted other fleet operators. Avanti Communications of London was one of those with available Ka-band capacity over Africa.
Whether Facebook is ready to take a deeper plunge into the satellite services business remains unclear. A large high-throughput satellite system likely would cost in the neighborhood of $700 million or more including construction, launch, insurance and the dedicated ground infrastructure.
Eutelsat and Facebook have agreed to divide, in approximately equal shares, the $95 million cost of the Amos-6 Ka-band capacity of about 18 gigabits per second of throughput. The lease, extending to September 2021, assumes that Amos-6 is launched as scheduled in mid-2016 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and is ready for service by January 2017. The lease can be extended for up to two years at a reduced rate, Spacecom said in an Oct. 6 filing with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
The contract includes a provision that Spacecom purchase, on behalf of Eutelsat and Facebook, an insurance policy covering project-related risks that would not otherwise be covered by Spacecom’s own insurance policy covering the satellite’s launch and first year in orbit.
Eutelsat and Facebook will be taking out a third policy on their own to further reduce their risk exposure. Amos-6 is tentatively scheduled for launch in mid-2016 aboard a Falcon 9 v1.2 rocket, also known as the Falcon 9 Upgrade, built and operated by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.
A lighter version of that rocket, which is being phased out this year, failed in June. SpaceX hopes to return to flight, with the enhanced-version Falcon 9, in November.
In its filing, Spacecom said that while its customers — Facebook and Eutelsat, even though only then latter is named in the filing — are responsible for building the project’s three gateway Earth stations in France, Italy and Israel, the Israel gateway will revert to Spacecom ownership at the end of the lease at no charge to Spacecom.
It is Spacecom’s responsibility to secure the needed gateway operating licenses in Israel, the filing said. Amos-6 will operate at 4 degrees west longitude in geostationary orbit. Eutelsat and Facebook are likely to coordinate the purchase of user terminals to save costs but are otherwise developing separate businesses, with Facebook’s Internet.org focusing on its Internet-for-everyone mission.
Facebook and Eutelsat have the right to terminate the contract if the satellite and the gateway are not ready for service by Jan. 1, 2017.
While Amos-6 will carry 36 Ka-band spot beams, Facebook and Eutelsat, after a technical analysis including an assessment of customer power requirements, have concluded that only 18 of the spot beams can be used simultaneously without sacrificing user experience.
Amos-6 also has a Ku-band payload that Spacecom will use for its business in the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe. Spacecom secured a $105.4 million loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank covering the satellite’s launch; the U.S. equipment on the satellite itself, whose prime contractor is Israel Aerospace Industries; and the management of the insurance policy by broker Marsh USA.
Eutelsat said the choice of a prime contractor for the gateway Earth stations, and for the user terminals, has not been made, but that it is likely to coordinate with Facebook the purchase of user terminals to benefit from a volume discount with whichever supplier they select.