European S-band: competition, what competition?

Posted in ICO/DBSD, Inmarsat, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 1:43 pm by timfarrar

Although the European S-band spectrum allocation process is well underway, its looking increasingly possible that there might never be more than one satellite system actually built to use this spectrum, namely the Solaris payload to be launched on Eutelsat W2A later this year. Amongst the other three entrants to the spectrum allocation process, ICO and TerreStar’s financial situation already makes it difficult to see them being able to fund construction and launch of new European satellites, although ICO maintains its legacy claim to the spectrum (by virtue of the MEO satellite launched in 2001), and has vigorously protested Ofcom’s planned cancellation of its registration in the ITU’s Master Frequency Register.

On Inmarsat’s results call today, the company was explicit about its intention not to “put its balance sheet at risk” to build its proposed EuropaSat S-band satellite, and when the CEO was asked about whether he would adopt a “build it and they will come” approach, he replied “absolutely not”. Inmarsat instead plans to seek external investors to fund the project, and ultimately to spin it off as a separate company. The contrast between Inmarsat’s description of its Alphasat project as bringing more capacity in the EMEA region, more spectrum and more redundancy to support future growth, and EuropaSat as a “non-core” project, was particularly striking.

While Inmarsat highlighted that EuropaSat could have interesting prospects in satellite radio as well as mobile TV, Ondas (which now looks to be the most likely vehicle for satellite radio development in Europe) has been growing closer to Solaris in recent months. This comes despite SES’s earlier skepticism about the prospects for satellite radio in Europe, and presumably reflects the very dim outlook for satellite-delivered mobile TV in Europe and elsewhere. Its therefore far from clear where Inmarsat might find the partners needed to fund EuropaSat, especially in such difficult economic times, and we believe it is now plausible (and perhaps even likely) that even if Inmarsat is awarded a license by the EU later this year, the EuropaSat satellite may never be built.

Ironically, the EU’s allocation rules don’t appear to envisage such an outcome, focusing instead on how to resolve a spectrum shortage and restricting any one operator to at most half of the 2x30MHz of spectrum available. In these circumstances it is quite possible that some of the spectrum might eventually end up being reallocated to terrestrial 3G networks instead of satellite services, as happened in North America back in 2003.

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