Satmex Undecided on 2nd Satellite Under Deal with ABS and Boeing

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PARIS — Satellite operator Satmex of Mexico says it has not yet committed to buying a second of two planned satellites as part of a broader contract involving Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) and manufacturer Boeing that was announced in March.

Satmex said it will firmly declare its intentions by July 2013.

In filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and a presentation to investors, Satmex laid out details of its agreement with ABS and Boeing — a four-satellite deal that sent ripples across the global satellite telecommunications industry following its announcement. Satmex and Hong Kong-based ABS announced they had ordered four Boeing-built satellites featuring a revolutionary design that sharply cuts a satellite’s launch mass without sacrificing on-board broadcast power.

The contract, which includes options for four additional satellites, is the first commercial order for spacecraft that rely entirely on electric — as opposed to chemical — propulsion systems. These propulsion systems are used not only to maintain a satellite stably in geostationary orbit but also to raise the satellite to its operating position after it is dropped off by its carrier rocket.

The Satmex-ABS agreement with El Segundo, Calif.-based Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems was coupled with an announcement that the first two satellites — one each for Satmex and ABS — would be launched together aboard a single Falcon 9 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. It is the all-electric design that permits these spacecraft, which otherwise would weigh around 4,000 kilograms each, to share a Falcon 9.

Satmex says the one satellite in the arrangement it is certain to purchase, called Satmex 7, will cost $165 million including design, construction, launch and insurance. It will carry the equivalent of 61 36-megahertz Ku- and C-band transponders and operate at Satmex’s 114.9 degrees west orbital slot. Satmex has raised new debt financing to help pay for Satmex 7 and is evaluating future financing through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the company said.

One drawback of a satellite using all-electric propulsion is that it takes months, rather than weeks, to climb from its launch vehicle drop-off point — known as geostationary transfer orbit — to its final geostationary position. Satmex 7 and the first of the two Boeing-built ABS satellites will be launched by the spring of 2015 but are not expected to begin operations before September, Satmex said.

Satmex and ABS together have made firm commitments to purchase three satellites, the Mexican operator said. The two companies have contributed equally to the initial deposit to Boeing on the fourth, and will determine at a later date which of them will take ownership. If neither company wants this satellite, the two operators will inform Boeing before July 13, 2013, and Boeing will keep the deposit.

Aside from the novelty of the Boeing design, the contract is also unusual in that it ties together two independent fleet operators. Satmex said that if either operator defaults on its purchase obligations, Boeing will increase the cost to the other operator to assure that Boeing does not take a loss on the program.

The two operators have made similar commitments to SpaceX. If one of the two backs out, SpaceX is entitled to raise the contract price for the remaining operator.

Boeing officials had said in March that they were able to offer Satmex and ABS contract terms that would not have been possible had the order been for less than four satellites.

The two operators’ options to purchase an additional four Boeing-built spacecraft expire in April 2014 and October 2015, Satmex said. For this next batch of satellites, Boeing has agreed to reduce its delivery schedule to 24 months from the 34 months needed for the first four.

For Satmex, the most urgent procurement for the moment is the Satmex 8 satellite under construction by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. Satmex 8, using conventional chemical propulsion, is scheduled for launch aboard an International Launch Services Proton rocket in late September from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Satmex 8, carrying 64 Ku- and C-band transponders, will replace the Satmex 5 satellite at 116.8 degrees west longitude. Satmex 5 is expected to run out of fuel in February, making the on-time arrival of Satmex 8 a crucial milestone for Satmex.

In its May 17 investor presentation, Satmex said 72 percent of Satmex 8’s capacity will be filled by current Satmex 5 customers. Satmex 8 has substantially more capacity than Satmex 5, giving Satmex room to grow its business once the new satellite is in orbit.

Satmex said the total cost of Satmex 8 will be about $318 million, which is lower than the company’s previous estimate of $330 million including construction, launch and insurance. Satmex has secured a $325 million insurance policy for the satellite’s launch and first year of operations.

Satmex said that as of March 31 its backlog stood at $195 million, including $89.2 million in Satmex 5 contracts that will be transferred to Satmex 8. The company said it had $77.6 million in cash as of March 31. Revenue for the three months ending March 31 was $31.8 million, with EBITDA — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — equivalent to 72 percent of revenue.

 

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