TAMPA, Fla. — Intelsat expects to decide whether to proceed with plans for a medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellation early next year after requesting proposals from nine satellite makers, an executive for the geostationary fleet operator said Sept. 12.

The company expects to get responses back in October from a mix of traditional and startup manufacturers, chief financial officer Toby O’Brien told SpaceNews on the sidelines of Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris.

“We’re continuing to work through the business case and funding profile” for an initial network of 18 MEO satellites, O’Brien said, and “we’re about six months away — roughly, give or take, from a final decision on the constellation.”

The constellation could be funded from a portion of the $3.7 billion the operator is due in October for clearing C-band spectrum ahead of the Federal Communications Commission’s deadline, in addition to the roughly $1 billion already received in interim payments.

Under commitments with lenders, O’Brien said Intelsat must spend half these clearing proceeds on paying down debt that stood at $7 billion when the operator emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.

Some of the C-band clearing proceeds are also going toward financing five geostationary satellites Intelsat has on order that he said should all be in orbit by the end of 2026: IS-41 and IS-44 from Thales Alenia Space, IS-42 and IS-43 from Airbus, and the much smaller IS-45 coming from 3D printing specialist Swissto12.

If Intelsat sticks to the plan to decide whether to pursue MEO satellites in early 2024, O’Brien said the company envisages deploying the constellation in 2027 for services at some point that year.

Intelsat announced Sept. 12 it had invested in Google spin-off Aalyria, which is developing optical communications technology that O’Brien said its MEO network could use.

He said the undisclosed financial commitment from Intelsat would help Aalyria accelerate the development of antennas for optical space-to-ground communications, which the venture plans to demonstrate next year with funding from the U.S. government.

Multi-orbit opportunities

Speaking on a World Satellite Business Week panel Sept. 12, Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial satellite at Northrop Grumman, described MEO as the next big opportunity for the industry.

“I think the combination of reduced latency and higher resiliency is going to be a real opportunity in space,” he said, “and I know a number of operators are looking at how they exploit that space with the most efficiency and economic return.”

Coming alongside Intelsat’s GEO network and the low Earth orbit (LEO) services to be provided in partnership with OneWeb, O’Brien said MEO satellites would help further differentiate the company’s products to serve emerging connectivity needs.

The potential MEO expansion also comes after Intelsat achieved top-line growth for the first time in a decade in 2022, driven mainly by commercial aviation and government business. The company is projecting another year of growth for 2023.

Intelsat had previously considered merging its GEO network with SES, which operates geostationary and MEO satellites — and is challenging the operator’s share of C-band proceeds.

Merger talks broke down in June for reasons unrelated to any progress Intelsat has been making either operationally or financially, according to O’Brien, who said the companies were ultimately unable to “construct something that was mutually agreeable by both sides.”

O’Brien also said Intelsat has no concerns about accessing OneWeb’s capacity as the company is on the verge of being sold to Eutelsat.

Intelsat’s agreement with OneWeb does not cover a second-generation constellation that Eutelsat is jointly considering with the LEO operator for deployments as early as 2025.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...