SINGAPORE — Satellite operators on June 1 expressed concern that the U.S. Export-Import Bank and France’s Coface, the world’s two most-active export agencies (ECAs) in funding satellite projects, might reduce their support for the industry in light of the failure of start-up satellite operator NewSat of Australia.
But these operators were far from unanimous about whether the failure, in which the Ex-Im Bank has definitively lost well over $100 million, would have a long-term chilling effect on ECA financing for satellite projects. Coface’s loss, as a backer of NewSat’s launch contract with Arianespace of Europe, is uncertain and is much less than the Ex-Im Bank’s as backer of the satellite construction contract.
In separate comments here during the CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum 2015, fleet operators expressed the hope that, because the NewSat failure is occurring at a time of relatively easy venture-capital and debt-market funding, the fallout would be short-lived.
William Wade, chief executive of Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, said the NewSat collapse was one of the most imporant industry events in the past 12 months, the other being the emergence of launch-service provider SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, as a reliable provider of commercial launches.
“The biggest issue there [with the Ex-Im Bank’s support for NewSat] is that it has actually put the Ex-Im Bank in jeopardy,” Wade said, noting that the bank is up for reauthorization by the U.S. Congress on July 1. “The fact that they are now going to be reporting this huge loss has some pretty serious implications for us as an industry and for companies that were looking for ways to finance ongoing projects.
“This is putting the export-financing institutions and agencies on notice. With these types of marginal projects, they are going to step back, and the Ex-Im Bank might not even be lending in the future.”
Vern Fotheringham, chief executive of LeoSat LLC of Arlington, Virginia – whose company will almost certainly be considering ECA financing of its constellation of low-orbiting satellites for high-volume data transfers – said any objective view of the Ex-Im Bank’s total balance sheet would conclude that NewSat is a small affair.
“I don’t think it will have much of an effect,” Fotheringham said. “It is not a devastating error.” He said oher export-credit agencies, including Canada, will be able to step in to minimize the disruption to the industry in the event of an Ex-Im Bank withdrawal.
Christian Patouraux, chief executive of Kacific of Singapore, which wants to provide connectivity to Pacific Ocean islands with two Ka-band payloads hosted on other companies’ geostationary-orbit satellites, said the NewSat failure “will affect any new satellite financings.”
“It means the level of scrutiny will increase for new projects,” Patouraux said. They [the Ex-Im Bank] burned their fingers and they will increase” their attention to details on future projects. “It just means you need to come up with a solid business plan.”
Satellite builder Space Systems Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, California, owned by MDA Corp. of Canada, has built numerous satellites financed with low-interest Ex-Im loans.
Richard Currier, SSL senior vice president for business development, said one fact that might limit the effects of the NewSat failure is that Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, has now taken full ownership of the former NewSat Jabiru-1 satellite.
Ex-Im and NewSat investors have already spent some $193 million on the satellite, with another $78 million needed to complete it for NewSat’s now-scrapped business plan. Lockheed Martin will be able to sell the spacecraft to another operator – perhaps former NewSat partner Measat of Malaysia – for a steeply discounted price given the previous investement.
Currier said that while the Ex-Im Bank may not be able to benefit from this, the NewSat case illustrates the fungibility of geostationary telecommunications satellites, which should reassure prospective lenders including ECAs.
Thomas Choi, chief executive of ABS of Bermuda, which has used Ex-Im and Coface funding in the past, said NewSat’s “spectacular failure” should serve as a lesson to government and private backers of speculative satellite projects at a time when multiple new satellite Internet projects in low Earth orbit are seeking financial backing.
Choi said these new systems include “a new wave of, in my analysis, many dubious projects” that the industry should do its best to stop.
“We have to do a better job as an industry to communicate to investors that are out there, who are not as sophisticated, to give advice on what is realistic, and what is not. I would really hate to see a recurrence of 20 years ago, when we had [billions of dollars] of investor losses that pretty much devastated this industry,” he said, referring to “fanciful LEO [low Earth orbit] projects that failed miserably.
“Investors basically shunned this industry for many years. Maybe we could create a technology panel perhaps, or write some papers, so that investors looking at these projects could talk to experts in radiocommunications, satellite manufacturing and launch vehicles, to give an alternate view.”