Satellites run the risk of saturation

29 March 1996

More and more Middle Eastern money is going up in satellites. The cost of current projects being carried out by Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat), the Arab Satellite Communications Organisation (Arabsat), Israel's Amos project, Egypt's Nilesat and Turkey's Turksat comes to more than $2,500 million. Much of the space on these satellites is intended for television broadcasting. However, sceptics say that the scale of investment will overstretch a market that is less than willing to pay for its viewing.

Representatives of broadcasting, satellite and telecommunications companies will attempt to address the problems they face in marketing their services when they meet at the Middle East Cable & Satellite Conference in Dubai from 20-21 March. Perhaps one of the most fundamental problems is that many of the Middle Eastern satellite projects are yet to be implemented while other satellites that are beaming down on the Middle East - Asiasat, Intelsat and the Pan-American Satellite-4 (PAS-4) - already offer high quality digital services. Rome-based Orbit Communications Company, which broadcasts to a wide-ranging Middle East audience, says that the US Intelsat-704 provides it with the right technology. Orbit says that the new KU-band signal on Intelsat means that its programmes can be received in the Middle East on dishes measuring just 50 centimetres.

A relatively new player in the broadcasting field is Arab Radio & Television (ART). With a similar programme mix to Orbit, but with much lower charges. ART promises to be a hit, broadcast specialists say. Unfortunately for Arab satellites, ART will be using PAS-4. The US satellite can provide ART with appropriate technology and, more importantly, it can do so now. Another main broadcaster, the UK-based Middle East Broadcast Centre (MBC) mainly uses the European Eutelsat. The next satellites to be launched by Middle Eastern companies may offer the same technology, but the delay could put them at a considerable disadvantage.

With ART, Orbit and MBC taking their business elsewhere, Arab satellites may be left picking up the crumbs. However, most remain optimistic. Not all the space will have to be marketed - Etisalat will use its satellite for its own telecommunications systems, Nilesat is the brain-child of state broadcaster Egyptian Radio & Television Union (ERTU), and Arabsat, jointly owned by Arab governments, will be used by state television companies.

Arabsat says that it has either firm commitments or signed contracts for the leasing of more than 90 per cent of the capacity of the first of its second generation satellites, Arabsat 2A. Much of this is from national television companies in the region, which want their programming to reach a wider audience.

Arabsat claims, however, to have caught the interest of some big players too, including Cable Network News (CNN) of the US. Nilesat also says that international broadcast companies have expressed an interest, although it would not identify them.

No-one can deny that the demand for satellite television is growing, but early indications point to a slower growth than once anticipated. Industry sources say that in the whole Arab region decoder sales average about 5,000 a month. Orbit has a total of 22,000 subscribers after 18 months of operation, despite drastic cuts in prices, which fell from an original $10,000 to $2,000 in less than a year. Pay to view is not yet catching on.

Despite this there are plenty of Middle East investors preparing to take the plunge:

Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat) - Etisalat announced plans early this year for its Thurayya satellite system, estimated to cost $900 million-1,000 million. The facility will operate from a fixed orbit and provide services to mobile telephone users. This will include audio and data communication for marine, land and regional subscribers. The satellite will cover most of the Middle East, parts of Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

Etisalat plans to form a new company with international partners to implement the project. Etisalat is also planning Emirsat for use by fixed telecommunications and television broadcasting networks, and Emarsat for telephone data and television programmes.

Arab Satellite Communications Organisation (Arabsat) - Arabsat has two satellites currently in operation and is well advanced in its second generation project. France's Aerospatiale has a contract for the manufacture and delivery in orbit of two identical satellites - Arabsat 2A and Arabsat 2B. France's Arianespace will be providing the launch vehicles. The satellites will each have 34 transponders, 12 of which will be K-band and 22 will be C-band. The footprint will be from Morocco to Pakistan, and from southern Italy to the states of central Africa. The launch of Arabsat 2A is scheduled for July this year. It will be used exclusively for television transmission. Arabsat 2B is to be launched in October 1997 and will provide a service for regional telephone traffic and for additional television transmission, once 2A is fully subscribed.

Israel is joining the throng with Amos-1 to be launched in May at an estimated cost of $350 million. The satellite is being developed by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and will use an Arianespace launcher. Amos-1 will have seven transponders and will be used tor domestic and regional services, including television and video broadcasting.

Egyptian Radio & Television Union (ERTU) is setting up the Nilesat television satellite system. The government plans to retain a 51 per cent stake in a new company and offer the rest for public subscription. The system will comprise two 72-channel television broadcast satellites, one of which is to be launched, and the other held in reserve. Each will have 12 KU-band transponders. The satellites, plus two ground stations, will be supplied by France's Matra Marconi.

Turk Telekomunikasyon is due to launch Turksat 1C in June 1996. Turksat 1B has already been launched and fully leased. lB has 16 transponders and 1C will have 18. 1B is used for both broadcast and telecommunications, the latter being limited to Turk Telekomunikasyon due to monopoly legislation. On the broadcasting side, 1B is currently leased only to Turkish companies, although Turksat is hopeful that the combined footprint of 1C's two beams, which will stretch from the borders of China to the UK, will attract European and Asian interest.

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