U.S., French export-credit agencies’ role in OneWeb remains questionable
PARIS — The French export-credit agency, Coface, on Sept. 13 said it was examining the OneWeb global internet-delivery constellation with an open mind but that it remains unclear whether the agency could guarantee a large portion of OneWeb’s debt.
Addressing the World Satellite Business Week conference here, organized by Euroconsult, Frederique Gournail, head of Coface’s space unit, said the agency would be limited to supporting actual French hardware content in calculating its support.
OneWeb is a global constellation of low-orbiting satellites whose capital cost has been estimated at around $3.5 billion. All but 10 of the approximately 900 satellites, including spares, to be built for the project will be manufactured in Florida by OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture of Airbus Defence and Space and OneWeb.
Ten prototype satellites will be built at Airbus’s Toulouse, France, facility.
It remains unclear how much Airbus- or French-sourced hardware for the balance of the constellation will be shipped to Florida.
In addition to satellite construction, OneWeb’s launches will be handled mainly by Evry, France-based Arianespace using Russia’s Soyuz rocket. Most of these launches will not be from Europe’s spaceport in South America, but from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
“We are not very flexible,” Gournail said. “We don’t consider ‘made by’ or ‘made for’ as French content. It’s really the people who are working in France that count” when Coface considers providing loan guarantees.
Export credit agencies, including Coface and the U.S. Export-Import Bank, in the past have found creative ways to support their manufacturers. In one case, a U.S. company was able to get Ex-Im backing to purchase a U.S.-built satellite by routing the satellite’s purchase through a British subsidiary.
Coface has provided loan guarantees for both the Iridium and Globalstar mobile communications constellations, and for the O3b Networks medium-Earth-orbit broadband delivery network.
Based in Britain’s Channel Islands, OneWeb’s decision to build a satellite manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida, makes it a logical candidate for Ex-Im support.
But the U.S. agency has been crippled since June 2015 from supplying funds, first when the U.S. Congress failed to reauthorize it, and more recently because the U.S. Senate has refused to confirm an Ex-Im board member. The lack of a quorum for its board has made it impossible for Ex-Im to approve loans or loan guarantees of more than $10 million.
Michael Whalen, Ex-Im’s vice president for structured finance, said the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is attempting to get around the quorum requirement by using a “budget anomaly” measure as part of the process of funding the U.S. federal government budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Addressing the conference, Whalen said it was too early to say whether the budget anomaly measure — “a term that must have been taken from the space industry,” he said — would unblock Ex-Im.
Given the size of the OneWeb project, the company may find it useful to seek export-credit support from a third government whose industry is among the OneWeb suppliers, such as Export Development Canada.
Whalen said that since its reauthorization in December, Ex-Im has been able to perform due diligence on multiple projects even though they cannot be granted loans or loan guarantees. He said $20 billion in infrastructure projects have been cleared by Ex-Im’s staff and await a resolution to the board-quorum issue. He said he did not know what percent of that figure is made up of satellite projects.