Inclined orbit satellites can now be worth millions

Communications satellites generally have an in-orbit lifetime of about 15-17 years. During this period they are deliberately maintained at a precise orbital position, which means they are perfect for DTH transmission to millions of receiving dishes despite being at some 37,000 kms above the Earth.

However, at the end of this full operational life, the satellite can be allowed to drift slightly out of its geostationary orbit. It means the satellite is no longer good for conventional DTH transmission. Such satellites still have a use, albeit limited, and this low-cost usage tends to be for ground-based users with more sophisticated ground antennas capable of following the North/South drift of the satellite. Over time, the inclined or eccentric orbit will extend until the satellite is truly out of life and it will be placed into a graveyard orbit out of harm’s way.

However, this financial model looks like it is about to change, and perhaps dramatically improve the fortunes of large satellite operators, many of which have a ‘fleet’ of these very aging craft.

The saviour is the airline industry, and in particular a new breed of satellite clients which beam broadband and video signals to aircraft passengers. These ‘direct to seat’ services do not wholly depend on expensively maintained geostationary satellites but can happily use an ‘inclined’ orbit satellite that’s well past its nominal life.

One new financial example occurred on January 4th when Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) bought the entire bandwidth which is operating in an inclined orbit over North America. GEE paid $50 million for the satellite’s capacity, which will be used for its ‘direct to seat’ services for Southwest Airlines.

Industry rumours suggest the satellite is SES’s AMC-3 satellite, launched in September 1997 (and thus some 19 years old. Currently, the satellite is at 73 degrees West. GEE is a major client for SES and Intelsat.

GEE is not alone in using satellites for its aircraft services. Panasonic Avionics, Gogo, and Thales LiveTV all have similar in-flight services, and could prove to be extremely valuable clients for satellite operators both in terms of ‘conventional’ broadcasting as well as inclined orbit usage.

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