Telenor Shares Insights on Two Key Satellite Suppliers

by

CANNES, France — Norway’s Telenor Satellite Broadcasting on Sept. 23 gave a side-by-side comparison of satellite builders Orbital Sciences of the United States and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, concluding that the manufacturers have their own ways of operating in the face of different challenges.

The bottom-line impressions of Oslo-based Telenor: Orbital has found ways to minimize the impact of U.S. ITAR technology-transfer restrictions that occasionally prevent customers from getting information about their own hardware, while Thales Alenia Space engineers have proved they can be available 24/7 despite France’s well-known labor-law restrictions.

One difference between the two companies, according to Telenor, is that Dulles, Va.-based Orbital appears more dependent than Thales Alenia Space on a thriving local rock-concert industry.

Telenor is uniquely placed to provide a customer’s-eye view of both satellite builders. Telenor’s Thor 5 was built by Orbital after a competition with Thales Alenia Space that Telenor says went down to the wire. Thor 5 was launched in February 2008.

Both manufacturers returned in 2007 to bid for Telenor’s Thor 7. It was another close decision, according to Telenor Satellite Broadcast Chief Executive Cato Halsaa, and this time it went in favor of the Thales Alenia Space, which is based here. Thor 7 is scheduled for launch in late October.

Telenor Satellite Broadcasting is a small division of large cellular-network operator Telenor, and a relatively small player in a commercial satellite-telecommunications market dominated by Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat. As such, the company cannot afford to play favorites when it comes to selecting contractors.

“We have three different satellite platforms in orbit launched by three different vehicles,” Halsaa said during a press briefing here on the eve of Thor 6’s shipment to Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. “So it’s well-known in the market that Telenor will go wherever the best terms are and will not be tied down to any supplier.”

The recent results appear good enough for parent company Telenor to have dropped any consideration of selling the satellite division. Halsaa said Telenor Satellite Broadcast expects revenue in 2009 to grow by more than 13 percent compared to 2008, topping 1 billion Norwegian kroner ($170.5 million).

The increase is due to Nordic take-up of high-definition television, which requires large amounts of satellite bandwidth, and to non-satellite-related work on digital terrestrial television that is a side specialty of the Telenor division.

Once it selects a satellite builder, Telenor Satellite Broadcasting sends a small team of engineers to camp out at the manufacturer’s operations, often for more than a year, to assure that the satellite’s development is on track.

For Oddveig Tretterud, Telenor’s field office manager, that meant moving to Virginia for a year for Thor 5’s construction, and then decamping to the Cannes region for Thor 6.

Halsaa, Tretterud and Peter J.K. Olsen, Telenor’s satellite project manager, said Orbital and Thales Alenia operate under very different cultures and use sometimes surprisingly different techniques to build and test their satellites. Both methods seem to work, they said.

Tretterud said one remarkable difference between the two satellite builders regards acoustic testing.

For Thales Alenia Space, this occurs in a specially designed room. At Orbital, she said, the satellite is positioned in a corridor inside the manufacturing facility and then surrounded by large loudspeakers rented from companies that provide gear for rock concerts.

The satellite is then bombarded with sound to verify its ability to withstand the acoustic environment under the fairing of a rocket as it climbs through the atmosphere.

One obvious difference between Orbital and Thales Alenia Space concerns U.S. technology-transfer regulations grouped under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

ITAR makes it difficult for a U.S. satellite builder to share information about a satellite with non-Americans, even when they are the satellite’s owners. Tretterud acknowledged that the Telenor team was barred from attending meetings that they otherwise would attend. But she said that, a decade after U.S. export rules were made more onerous for the satellite industry, Orbital has found ways to mitigate the impact.

“The restrictions certainly are there,” Tretterud said. “The younger engineers especially are worried about them because, if they cross the line, they could face criminal penalties. But I would have to say that we were able to get the information we needed, even if we could not attend some of the technical meetings. This was not a real problem.”

ITAR is much less of a problem for Thales Alenia Space, but Telenor officials had been concerned that French labor restrictions would cause hiccups in the manufacturing cycle.

“We have all heard about these labor rules and it was something of concern to us,” Halsaa said. “But our experience has been that the Thales program people are available when needed, even at unusual hours.”

Orbital and Thales Alenia both have multiple satellites going through their facilities. Telenor officials said their main task is to assure that their satellites are given sufficient priority so as not to be bypassed by another customer’s spacecraft on the way to the all-important thermal-vacuum tests.

Satellites spend four to five weeks in a thermal-vacuum chamber that simulates the space environment. Tretterud said making sure no satellite bypasses a Thor spacecraft in the race to the thermal-vacuum chamber is one of the key prioirties of Telenor’s on-site team.

“Once you’re in thermal-vacuum, you breathe a sigh of relief because you know you’re safe — no one can take your place,” she said.

For Thor 7, Thales Alenia Space toward the end of the manufacturing process assigned a three-shift team to the project to assure 24-hour work in order to make the contractual May deadline for production completion.

Neither Telenor nor Thales Alenia had any control over the fact that Arianespace, which is under contract to launch Thor 7 aboard a Ariane 5 rocket, was unable to find a suitable co-passenger aboard the heavy-lift vehicle. Halsaa said that meant the original May-June launch date was shifted in several steps, to the current end-of-October schedule.