SES Takes a Stake in O3b

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES has made a $75 million cash investment in startup satellite broadband provider O3b Networks, providing a large dose of credibility to O3b, which hopes to launch its first eight low-orbiting satellites in 2012, SES and O3b announced Nov. 16.

SES said the cash investment has already occurred and, when combined with in-kind work to be done for O3b, will give SES an equity stake of around 30 percent in the service operator.

The decision ends nearly a year of due-diligence examination by Luxembourg-based SES of O3b’s business case, satellite-to-ground architecture and financial backing. It makes it all but certain that O3b, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, will be able to collect on a promised $465 million in loan guarantees from France’s Coface export-credit agency.

Coface earlier this year had agreed to back O3b, on condition that the company secure additional financial commitments from its equity partners, and from the HSBC-led bank consortium that is raising debt financing that is expected to total about $525 million of O3b’s total capital cost of $750 million.

Industry officials said both of the world’s two largest commercial satellite fleet operators, Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington and SES, had looked hard at a possible investment in O3b. Intelsat and SES both have seen bandwidth demand continue to rise in Africa and the Middle East despite the economic crisis that has gripped much of the rest of the world. Longer-term, a successful O3b could be seen as a competitor to today’s fixed satellite service operators.

“O3b will be able to provide emerging markets with fast, competitively priced Internet connectivity that is currently only available to the developed world,” SES Chief Executive Romain Bausch said in a Nov. 16 statement. “As we look to celebrate our 25th anniversary next year, and reflect on how far we have come since we were a young startup company, we are excited to embrace and support this next-generation infrastructure initiative.”

O3b says it has collected more than $600 million in binding contract commitments from telecommunications operators in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere along the equatorial coverage area of the O3b satellite constellation. The contracts are for as long as five years of operation.

O3b has contracted with Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy to build the first eight O3b satellites, which will be launched by European versions of Russia’s Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana. The O3b constellation — O3b stands for the “other 3 billion” people on Earth without broadband access — will fly over the equator at an altitude of 8,000 kilometers.

The satellites will use Ka-band links to beam bandwidth to telecommunications towers equipped with tracking antennas to communicate with the O3b satellites, which at that low-operating altitude will require the antennas to follow the spacecraft and then to switch to other satellites as they pass overhead to assure uninterrupted links.

A Thales Alenia Space official said Nov. 18 that the company has accelerated its work on O3b following a recent cash payment associated with the SES investment. The official said the satellite manufacturer is now confident that the Coface financing will be finalized by February or March, permitting work to expand to permit a launch as early as 2012.

SES spokesman Yves Feltes said SES had thoroughly analyzed every aspect of the O3b business case and had assured itself that O3b has all the necessary licenses to operate its service from the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate that regulates satellite orbital positions and frequency use.

In addition to the cash, Feltes said SES will take charge of operating the O3b constellation from Luxembourg. A satellite operations center will also be located at a facility operated in the United States by SES World Skies. Feltes said SES would also have responsibility for overseeing O3b’s satellite and launch service contracts.