Intelsat orders four satellites from Maxar, two from Northrop Grumman, for C-band clearing

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WASHINGTON — Fleet operator Intelsat on June 15 said it has ordered six new satellites — four from Maxar Technologies and two from Northrop Grumman — that it needs to continue telecommunications services in the United States with less spectrum by early December 2023. 

The satellites are for C-band services, mainly television broadcasting, that satellite operators will have to conduct with less C-band airwaves in the United States after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission auctions 300 megahertz of the spectrum for use in cellular 5G networks. 

Luxembourg- and Virginia-based Intelsat, having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, obtained court approval for $1 billion of debtor-in-possession financing June 10 to ensure it could move forward with vacating the spectrum on an accelerated timeline. 

If Intelsat can clear its customers from the 300-megahertz swath by Dec. 5, 2023, it will receive $4.87 billion in accelerated clearing payments through the FCC, which said it will require spectrum bidders to make those payments for advanced access to the spectrum. That’s two years faster than the FCC’s mandatory deadline for satellite operators to leave the spectrum. 

Intelsat has cited the urgent need to fund replacement C-band satellites and other infrastructure for the FCC’s accelerated clearing program as one of the reasons it filed for bankruptcy protection. While the FCC said bidders in its Dec. 8 C-band auction will be required to pay for satellite operator replacement infrastructure (in addition to the accelerated clearing payments), Intelsat estimates it will need to spend at least $800 million up front before any hope of reimbursement. 

Intelsat is the customer behind the multi-satellite order Maxar disclosed in May, Intelsat spokesperson Melissa Longo told SpaceNews by email. 

The satellites Maxar will build are named Galaxy-31, Galaxy-32, Galaxy-35 and Galaxy-36; the satellites from Northrop Grumman are named Galaxy-33 and Galaxy-34. All six are expected to be ready for launch in 2022, according to their manufacturers.

Intelsat said it is negotiating with manufacturers for a seventh satellite that, once described as a possible need, is now “required” for its C-band transition. 

“Quickly clearing 300 megahertz of the U.S. C-band spectrum to make way for 5G wireless applications is a complex task, layered with a significant number of highly interdependent technical activities, including building and launching multiple new satellites designed to operate at the higher portion of the band,” Intelsat Chief Services Officer Mike DeMarco said in a June 15 news release. “Intelsat looks forward to collaborating with our longstanding partners Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman on these critical builds, essential to clearing portions of the C-band spectrum and cementing America’s leadership in 5G.”

Intelsat is the first operator to order C-band replacement satellites triggered by the upcoming FCC spectrum auction. Luxembourg-based SES will also order six C-band satellites in the coming days or weeks, according to CEO Steve Collar. SES is eligible for $3.97 billion in accelerated clearing payments if it can meet the same Dec. 5, 2023 target. The two companies account for the majority of U.S. C-band spectrum usage.