Interest in European Satellite Radio Heats Up

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WorldSpace Inc.’s AfriSpace subsidiary wants to complete a partly built satellite to provide digital radio broadcasting in Europe but is running into opposition from a European start-up claiming it wants to do the same thing.

Washington-based AfriSpace Inc. proposes to launch an Afristar-2 satellite into the same slot where the current Afristar-1 spacecraft is operating, at 21 degrees east longitude. From there it would focus on providing satellite radio coverage in Europe, freeing up Afristar-1 to focus on coverage of Africa and the Middle East.

Impressed by the success of the two satellite-radio companies in the United States — Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio — several European companies in the past five years have sought to finance a European version for fixed and mobile audiences. To date, none has progressed beyond the regulatory-filing stage.

AfriSpace, whose WorldSpace parent company is trying to raise $100 million in an initial stock offering, wants to appeal to this market and has asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to approve the launch of Afristar-2 into geostationary orbit.

AfriSpace is labeling the satellite as a replacement for AfriStar-1, but with a wider coverage area. AfriStar-1 is already able to reach much of Europe as far north as Britain from its location in geostationary orbit, 36,000 kilometers above the equator. According to AfriSpace, the Afristar-2 satellite would be built from a partly completed spacecraft that has been in storage for several years.

An FCC approval of the AfriSpace request would pose serious problems for a start-up company called Ondas Spain SL of Madrid, which is designing a satellite-radio system that would use satellites in elliptical orbit over Europe. AfriStar-2, according to Ondas officials, would put the Spanish company out of business.

A satellite in elliptical orbit would permit fuller coverage of northern latitudes than that provided by a satellite in geostationary orbit. Under current international satellite-licensing regulations, a geostationary orbiting satellite has priority over a non-geostationary orbiting satellite such as what is proposed by Ondas.

Ondas is led by Chief Executive Officer Celso Azevedo, a veteran satellite communications executive formerly with DirecTV Group of the United States, SES Global of Luxembourg and the now-defunct Astrolink International.

In a submission to the FCC, Azevedo says that an approval of Afristar-2 “may have a devastating impact on Ondas and the introduction of [satellite radio] in Europe.” The filing also says the FCC, as a U.S. regulator, has no business authorizing spectrum that will not be used to provide service in the United States. It accuses AfriSpace of “an attempt… to use the FCC to get a foothold in Europe.”

AfriSpace responded to the Ondas objection by telling the FCC that Ondas “is a disgruntled would-be competitor that would suddenly like to capitalize on the development of a satellite radio market by WorldSpace and others.”

The French government also has concerns about Afristar-2. In a letter the FCC received May 5, the director-general of France’s National Frequencies Agency says Afristar-2 is “likely to be technically incompatible” with a satellite proposal already registered with international frequency regulators.

The system in question, called European Satellite Digital Radio, is being designed by Alcatel Space of Paris — the prime contractor for the current WorldSpace satellite and ground system.

Jean-Francois Migeon, Alcatel Space vice president for regulatory matters, said Alcatel’s reservation of satellite-radio frequencies over Europe with the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva has been renewed regularly since 1998. He said June 3 that the reservation gives Alcatel until 2010 to place into service a satellite.