European S-band: 30 days to decide

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, Inmarsat, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 2:07 pm by timfarrar

The European Commission has announced the result of the S-band MSS selection process: as expected the two winners are Solaris Mobile and Inmarsat, with ICO and TerreStar’s applications rejected.

In response to the announcement, Inmarsat said it was “delighted to be the recipient” and “will look to pursue the commercial partnerships necessary to ensure that the returns from the required investment in our S-band programme will generate acceptable returns on capital without undue risks or uncertainties”.

However, it may not have much time to establish these partnerships, since the EC has stated that “within 30 working days of the publication of the list of selected applicants they shall inform the Commission in case they do not intend to use the radio frequencies”. If applicants decide to move forward (i.e. do not return the license) then they “will be bound by the commitments that they have undertaken, including commitments made concerning consumer and competitive benefits and geographic coverage” and all new systems must have “development and deployment completed” by May 2011 “at the latest”. A two year deadline for deployment is extremely tight, and Inmarsat would have to start spending serious money in the very near future (probably close to $100M in the next 12 months and $300M over the next two years) to complete and launch a satellite in this timeframe.

It will be very interesting to see if Inmarsat can find partners to come up with this amount of money (or enter into some alternative form of capacity purchase contracts) in the next 30 days. Given that Solaris already has a satellite in orbit (albeit with more limited coverage) and has not yet announced any meaningful capacity commitments, it would be quite a surprise if Inmarsat was successful, especially in the midst of an economic downturn.

It remains unclear what sanctions the EC can impose on operators who fail to live up to their “commitments” and ultimately do not complete an S-band satellite on the promised schedule. We would have thought it unlikely that fines or other monetary penalties would be imposed, but coming a day after Intel was fined more than 1 billion Euros by the EC’s Competition Directorate, this may not be a good time to get on the wrong side of the Commission.

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