Iridium Next Bidders Seek Backing from Export Credit Agencies

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PARIS — Mobile satellite services provider Iridium, which was purchased Sept. 23 by GHL Acquisition of New York and is issuing $160 million in new stock, may need to delay until early 2010 the selection of a prime contractor for its $2.7 billion Iridium Next constellation of 66 low-orbiting satellites, the company’s chief executive said Sept. 24.

Matt Desch, who will be staying on as chief executive of the renamed Iridium Communications, also said the two finalists for the Iridium Next work — Lockheed Martin of the United States and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy — are actively seeking support from the U.S. and French export-credit agencies.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank and France’s Coface have in the past demonstrated their willingness to guarantee loans for satellite projects that provide work for their national industries. Coface in particular in recent months has agreed to guarantees for low-cost loans to Iridium competitor Globalstar and for startup satellite-broadband provider O3b Networks.

“It’s certainly a consideration” in evaluating the Iridium Next bids, Desch said in a Sept. 24 interview, referring to export-credit agency support.

Iridium’s current generation of satellites in orbit includes seven spares and is expected to continue to provide the full range of voice and data communications through 2014, Bethesda, Md.-based Iridium says. All the satellites are past their seven-year design life, and most have been in orbit since 1998. Even so, the company says there is no reason to believe the satellites’ batteries or other components will wear out in sufficient numbers to materially affect service between now and when the Iridium Next launches are scheduled.

Since the original Iridium owners began commercial service in 1998, the constellation has lost seven satellites — six to onboard failures, some caused by radiation; and one in a February collision with a defunct Russian satellite. Desch said the collision, which created hundreds of pieces of orbital debris in Iridium’s orbit, has not resulted in any material increase in the risk to Iridium’s spacecraft.

Milpitas, Calif.-based Globalstar’s 48-satellite constellation, whose satellites are in a higher orbit more subject to radiation damage, suffered a sudden degradation of its satellites’ two-way communications capability starting in early 2007. The failure resulted in a substantial loss of revenue at Globalstar, threatening the company’s ability to finance its second-generation constellation even as the requirement for new satellites increased.

With key backing from Coface, Globalstar has now financed its second-generation system, with launches scheduled to begin in 2010.

Globalstar Chief Executive Jay Monroe, in a Sept. 23 presentation to shareholders, sought to contrast Globalstar’s fully funded second-generation system with Iridium Next. Without mentioning Iridium by name, Monroe said Globalstar is on a clear path to satellite-fleet renewal “[w]hile our primary competition continues to search for money and a manufacturer.”

In a transaction announced in late 2008 that many analysts thought would never succeed given the collapse of the capital markets, GHL Acquisition Corp. of New York on Sept. 23 successfully persuaded its shareholders to purchase Iridium, which now is GHL Acquisition’s sole asset.

GHL Acquisition said it would issue 16 million shares of common stock, priced at $10 a 

share, in a public offering on the Nasdaq exchange. The offering is expected to close Sept. 29. After banking and advisory fees are subtracted, the company expects to receive $149.4 million in proceeds — or up to $173.4 million if the investment-bank underwriters purchase all the shares reserved for them — to be used in part to continue work on Iridium Next.

“We feel we’re on track” with Iridium Next, Desch said. “We have two competitive proposals, and we expect to sign a prime contract in the next several months. It could be late 2009 or it could be early 2010. I’ve been saying it’ll take us another four months or so.”

The original Iridium began commercial service in late 1998 and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in mid-1999. It was purchased out of bankruptcy in late 2000 by investors paying a fraction of the capital cost of building and launching the constellation.

Iridium has been expanding its revenue base steadily since then and reported revenue of $320.9 million in 2008. For the first six months of 2009, the company reported revenue of $158.4 million from a subscriber base of 347,000 users of mobile Iridium phones.

The U.S. government, especially the U.S. Department of Defense, has been an important early Iridium customer. But with the growth of Iridium’s commercial subscriber base, the U.S. government contribution to Iridium revenue has declined in percentage terms, to 23 percent in the first six months of 2009.

In a prospectus sent to investors in preparation for the Iridium purchase, GHL Acquisition said Iridium’s growth would moderate in the near term and revenue from the U.S. government would slip further as a percentage of overall sales as the company focuses on the commercial market. Iridium took advantage of Globalstar’s in-orbit problems in the past three years, actively seeking to woo Globalstar subscribers. At a satellite-finance conference here Sept. 10, Monroe said Globalstar “would love to return the favor” once Globalstar’s new satellites are in service.

Iridium has said it expects to finance most of the estimated $2.7 billion it will cost to design, build and launch its 66 second-generation satellites from operating cash flow and debt and equity sources.

In addition, Iridium has been seeking customers that would place their own small instruments for observation, science or other services on Iridium’s new satellites as secondary payloads. These customers would pay an upfront charge to Iridium, offsetting the capital cost of Iridium Next, and also pay a service fee once the satellites are in orbit.

Desch said that given the design deadlines for Iridium Next spacecraft, prospective secondary-payload customers have until late 2011 to signal their commitments.