Italian Space Agency Signs Bandwidth Deals with Eutelsat

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PARIS — The Italian government will secure satellite bandwidth through an advance purchase of Ku-band capacity aboard a future Eutelsat telecommunications satellite and by entering into a service agreement with the Paris-based fleet operator for Ka-band broadband transmissions, the president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) said July 7.

ASI has already agreed to pay 50 million euros ($70 million) to Eutelsat for 10 Ku-band transponders on a satellite that has yet to be ordered but is expected to be launched in 2013 or 2014, Enrico Saggese said. Owning the transponders instead of leasing them means an up-front cash charge as opposed to an annual lease, a tradeoff that he said was favorable to the Italian taxpayer.

The satellite, to be operated at 9 degrees east, will also carry a laser-optical data-relay terminal for the European Space Agency.

Under a separate agreement, ASI will act as marketing agent in Italy for up to 550 megabits per second of Ka-band broadband capacity aboard Eutelsat’s large Ka-Sat satellite, which began operations in May, also at 9 degrees east.

Saggese said the agreement features no exchange of funds, at least not immediately. Instead, ASI and a private-sector partner to be selected in 2012 will market Ka-Sat to Italian government and other institutions without competing with commercial Ka-Sat service providers already signed up to sell to consumers.

Added to these assets will be the Athena-Fidus satellite, a civil-military Ka-band spacecraft co-owned by the Italian and French defense ministries and space agencies. Athena-Fidus, which is under construction, is scheduled for launch in late 2013 or 2014.

ASI will use its allocation of Athena-Fidus Ka-band throughput, plus the Ku-band and Ka-Sat capacity, to create a public-private partnership with a joint-venture company called Asitel.

In an interview, Saggese said that given the guaranteed Italian government demand and the value of the satellite bandwidth involved, Asitel could be expected to secure a valuation of up to 100 million euros ($140 million) from  private investors. Forty-nine percent of the company would be sold to the private sector, he said.

With these proceeds, plus additional investment secured from private equity or commercial bank loans, Asitel would broaden its Ka-band footprint with future spacecraft, Saggese said.

The Asitel-related moves signal the return of the Italian government to satellite telecommunications development more than a decade after it decided that satellite bandwidth was sufficiently commercialized that it did not need direct government development aid.

“For budget reasons, Italy had decided to get out of satellite communications,” Saggese said. “Today, Italy is one of the few developed nations that have neither its own civilian telecommunications satellite, nor a participation in an international satellite operator. Our re-entry will be only for government services. We do not intend to compete with the private sector.”

Eutelsat officials have declined to disclose the company’s role in the European Data-Relay System (EDRS), which is being created by the 19-nation European Space Agency. EDRS development has been slowed as the European Space Agency and the German government, which is the principal backer of the project, negotiate a multiyear operation and service contract with Astrium Services, a unit of Europe’s Astrium space hardware and services provider.

Saggese said he remains confident that EDRS satellite contracts will be signed this year. In any event, he said, ASI has purchased 10 Ku-band transponders for government television broadcasts aboard the same satellite that will host an EDRS laser-optical data-relay terminal.

ASI and Eutelsat, through Eutelsat’s Skylogic satellite-broadband subsidiary, signed an agreement July 4 under which ASI would have access to up to 550 megabits per second of Ka-Sat throughput on 10 of the satellite’s spot beams.

Ka-Sat is equipped with 82 spot beams, each capable of transmitting 900 megabits per second of throughput.