French Export Credit Agency Backs O3b Project

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PARIS — Startup satellite broadband provider O3b Networks has secured the backing of France’s Coface export-credit agency for a $465 million loan to support the company’s construction and launch of eight medium Earth orbit Ka-band satellites, according to O3b’s chief executive and the project’s prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy.

The Coface loan guarantee is part of a total O3b debt package of $525 million to be provided by a bank syndicate. O3b has already raised about $86 million in equity and will need to raise additional funds to complete the project’s financial package, estimated at around $750 million.

That is the approximate amount it will take for O3b to build, launch and insure its first eight satellites, to be launched four at a time starting in 2011 on Russian Soyuz rockets operated from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

The backing of this project by Coface comes just two months after mobile satellite services provider Globalstar of California secured $738 million in financing for its second-generation satellite constellation with key Coface support. It is the latest demonstration of Coface’s willingness to take risks on behalf of projects that put French aerospace engineers to work but for which it would otherwise be difficult or impossible to raise commercial-bank financing.

In a Sept. 4 statement that did not mention O3b, Coface said it is continuing to invest aggressively despite the economic downturn in Europe, and despite the fact that the recession caused the agency to report a loss of 103 million euros ($147 million) for the first six months of 2009.

Despite the loss, Coface said it has increased, by 3 percent, the volume of loan guarantees it has outstanding. Total guarantees were 364 billion euros as of June 30 compared to 354 billion euros in January 2008, before the collapse of global credit markets.

In a Sept. 4 statement, Emmanuel Grave, Thales Alenia Space’s executive vice president for telecommunications, thanked Coface and said the export-credit agency is playing its assigned role by “efficiently supporting programs led by the French space industry. We are working closely with O3b Networks Ltd. to assist [in] their discussions with the agency and respective consortium of banks.”

Globalstar and O3b will be using similar satellite skeletal structures, or platforms, provided by Thales Alenia Space.

O3b, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, was met with considerable industry skepticism when it announced its project in September 2008.

In a Sept. 4 interview, O3b founder and Chief Executive Greg Wyler said assembling the financial package in the face of the recession that has gripped much of the world has taken longer than expected. But he said the fact that the economic downturn has spared a large swath of Africa and the Middle East has meant O3b has continued to sign customer commitments.

The company has binding contract commitments totaling close to $600 million for services to be provided over the first five years of O3b operations, Wyler said.

“The good news is that the markets we are targeting continue to grow, and the fact remains that governments around the world view bandwidth and telecommunications access as being as necessary as basic utilities,” Wyler said. “If anything, in the past year we have seen demand for our service increase in these markets.”

O3b’s planned 700-kilogram satellites will be launched into an 8,000-kilometer orbit centered over the equator, to service regions between 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south latitude. Its main markets are in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia that are ill-served by cable links — hence the company’s name, which stands for the “other 3 billion” people who are not connected to the high-bandwidth telecommunications grid.

O3b will provide Ka-band capacity to towers owned by telecommunications companies in the service regions, extending the reach of 3G wireless coverage for cellular network operators in these regions.

Wyler said the company has already secured International Telecommunication Union regulatory approval to operate its constellation in Ka-band and is in no danger of interfering with Ka-band satellites operating higher up in geostationary orbit. “There are zero issues there,” Wyler said of O3b’s frequency coordination.