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SES CEO Steve Collar Talks ULA, SpaceX C-Band Launch Contracts

By | August 11, 2020
SES CEO Steve Collar. Photo: SES

Steve Collar. Photo: SES

SES CEO Steve Collar said that the operator is working with its satellite manufacturer partners to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not disrupt the tight deadlines that FCC has in place for its C-Band reallocation incentives. In the following interview with Via Satellite, Collar said that the C-band clearing is one of SES’ most important projects and explained why the operator’s recent launch contracts with ULA and SpaceX will keep everything on schedule.

He also explained why he sees the U.S. government as a key market for the operator ahead of the launch of SES-17 and O3b mPOWER coming up in 2021.

VIA SATELLITE: Why did you decide to contract SpaceX and ULA to launch your C-band satellites?

Collar: It is important to underscore the amount of progress we are making on the overall C-band clearing plan. Having the final report and order from the FCC and all operators electing to clear was the flag coming down on SES moving into full execution mode. Given that we have been preparing the transition plan for almost two years, we had a lot lined up ready to go, and what you are seeing now is a flurry of contract announcements for satellites and launch vehicles.

The single most important criteria for choosing a vendor to be a part of our C-band transition plan is schedule assurance and reliability. It is super important that we execute on our obligations to the FCC and this means, among other things, diversity of launch providers and satellite providers to maximize the probability of mission success. It also means choosing partners that have unmatched records in terms of reliability. We are very happy to partner with ULA and SpaceX and the fact that we are able to leverage strong U.S. companies to deliver on this incredibly important project for the U.S. is also an important element.

VIA SATELLITE: Were the launch prices similar between ULA and SpaceX?

Collar: The most important thing for this entire project, for the FCC, for the mobile carriers and for SES is to hit the schedule to clear. We were looking for the most assured solution, and not just the cheapest solution and we feel the combination of ULA and SpaceX gives us that. It also gives us diversity in case there are issues with delays with one or the other system. We have a lot of confidence in both companies to deliver what we need.

VIA SATELLITE: Did you consider only U.S.-based vehicles for these particular C-band launches?

Collar: I wouldn’t say that was all we considered. I would say our main criteria was reliability, access to space. We needed companies that had very robust launch plans and very strong manifest assurance. But given that this is about clearing spectrum in the U.S. and an initiative undertaken by the FCC, utilizing a very strong U.S. space manufacturing and launch industry was an important consideration. The good news is that the U.S. is home to a very competitive and dynamic space and launch environment so combining these elements was straightforward.

VIA SATELLITE: What percentage of capacity do you expect to be accounted for by the time these satellites launch?

Collar: These are satellites that are being used entirely for C-band repurposing. Having to go from 500 MHz of C-band capacity to effectively 200 MHz of usable capacity means that we need more slots delivering to the cable and broadcast communities.  All of these satellites will be 100% utilized by the time they are in service. Once they are operational, we have to go through a complex exercise of replanning spectrum, replanning our customers’ networks and installing filters across all Earth stations that receive C-band services in the future to protect the Earth stations from interference. This is all part of a complex and highly well-choreographed plan to deliver on our C-band transition plan to meet FCC’s deadlines.

VIA SATELLITE: We are all dealing with this COVID-19 environment. How did this change the process of talking to providers?

Collar: Schedule criticality is higher here than it is for most programs. The FCC has been very clear, and we have fully signed up what accelerated clearing means. It means we have to deliver on this enormously complicated repurposing by December 2021 for 120 MHz of spectrum and December 2023 for the full 300 MHz. If we deliver on time, we will be eligible for significant acceleration payments — and if we don’t, we won’t. So, schedule assurance was fundamental.

With the current COVID-19 environment it was important for us to understand the risks we are taking with schedule and I would say this had a bigger influence on the satellite side than on the launch side. The launches will occur a couple of years down the road and, by then, everyone has the expectation that COVID impacts will be behind us or mitigated. On the satellite side, the design and manufacturing are starting now and the manufacturers are impacted daily by the COVID-19 environment. Our teams have spent time making sure that our C-band programs have priority within the factory wherever possible, and that the supply chains are not going to be negatively impacted by COVID-19.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you view the potential for 5G services in the U.S., and the role that satellite can play here? How do you view the U.S. market generally in terms of growth potential for SES?

Collar: The U.S. market is one of the most important markets for SES across our portfolio. We have customers in all the verticals that we operate in — video, fixed data, mobility, government – in the U.S.

With C-band, we serve 120 million households with the cable neighborhoods that we have built over the last 40 years. One of the fundamental parts of this C-band repurposing is to make sure those neighborhoods are protected, so the most important broadcasters can continue to rely on us to distribute their programming across our networks securely. … C-band repurposing is one of, if not, the most important projects for SES to implement right now. We have over 300 people at SES engaged either full-time or part-time in the clearing effort.

When it comes to fixed data, there is currently a lot of focus on 5G rollout and deployment and backhaul requirements required for the U.S.,’s rural programs. As for mobility, most of our aero and cruise customers are based in the U.S. The government market is also key for us in the U.S. As we look ahead to the launch of SES-17 and O3b mPOWER coming up in 2021, I would say we have some really unique capabilities which are framed squarely at the U.S. government, so the U.S. will be a very significant market for us.

VIA SATELLITE: Are relations with Intelsat at an all-time low now after the C-Band Alliance aftermath? 

Collar: I wouldn’t say so. We have a very specific difference of opinion around the C-Band Alliance and the fact that the agreements and commitments that our companies made should be respected. We will continue to hold Intelsat to account for those commitments to be honored. But I would say more broadly, we have shared interest and alignment in making sure that the clearing of the C-band happens in as smooth and straight-forward a way as possible. We have a good working relationship with Intelsat, notwithstanding the fact, we expect them to live up to their obligations.