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Iridium buys NEXT constellation from Thales Alenia Space

Iridium Communications has picked Thales Alenia Space to design and build its next-generation constellation of 72 satellites plus nine ground spares under a $2.1 billion fixed price contract.Compared with the existing constellation, Iridium NEXT will increase subscriber capacity from two to three million while supporting L-band data speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps, rather than the current 128 kbps, plus high-speed Ka-band service at up to 8 Mbps. The 66-satellite constellation and six in-orbit spares will support enhanced voice quality, flexible bandwidth allocation and private network gateways while maintaining the existing network’s true global coverage and providing backward compatibility with existing handsets and devices. The platforms are also designed to accommodate secondary payloads for tasks such as climate change surveillance and low-resolution Earth imaging.

Thales Alenia Space, a Thales/Finmeccanica joint venture, will start work immediately under an authorisation to proceed so that the first satellites can be launched in the first quarter of 2015. It says Iridium NEXT will be compatible with the operator’s existing network and will gradually replace it, ultimately providing enhanced 3G type mobile services. Based on the LEO platform that Thales Alenia Space developed specifically for constellations, the satellites will each carry a sophisticated active antenna, two-axis solar arrays and on-board processing software for call routing.

Iridium says French export credit agency Coface has issued a promise of guarantee covering 95 per cent of a $1.8 billion credit facility for the project. The financing covered by the Coface guarantee is being syndicated through French and other major international banks and financial institutions and is expected to be completed this summer. The overall contract will then take effect.

Total cost of the NEXT constellation, including development, manufacture and launch, is put at approximately $2.9 billion. "Our announcement today exceeds our earlier expectations in every way," says CEO Matt Desch. "The Coface guarantee enables Iridium to secure attractive and flexible low cost financing for the project. Based on the amount of this guarantee, we expect Iridium NEXT to be fully funded when the financing is finalised this summer."

Iridium Communications has many aeronautical users among its 390,000 subscribers. Last month the satellite operator and JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV revealed plans to develop an aviation antenna that will support cockpit and cabin voice and data communications for both commercial and general aviation operators.

Photo shows Iridium CEO Matt Desch (left) and Reynald Seznec, CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

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