EchoStar buys struggling MSS operator Solaris Mobile

EchoStar said it acquired full ownership of Dublin-based mobile satellite services operator Solaris Mobile from former parents Eutelsat and SES and will take over Solaris Mobile's one S-band payload currently in orbit. No financial details were provided for the deal.

In connection with the acquisition, EchoStar said it has also entered into an agreement with Solaris Mobile to provide it with MSS capacity on a new next-generation MSS satellite.

Initially established as a joint venture by Eutelsat and SES in 2008, Solaris Mobile seemed to get off to a flying start with its ambition to build a satellite and terrestrial network for wholesale access to mobile communications. In 2009, it was one of two operators--the other being Inmarsat--selected by the European Commission to provide MSS services in Europe using harmonised S-band frequencies across the 27 member states. S-band is spectrum in the 2 GHz band and is adjacent to UMTS used by 3G operators.

Both companies were awarded 30 MHz (2x15MHz) of S-band spectrum, and planned to build a hybrid network using satellite capacity and terrestrial repeaters in order to provide MSS services such as mobile TV and mobile broadband access. The spectrum rights were for a period of 18 years.

However, Solaris Mobile quickly ran into problems. In April 2009 the company said in-orbit tests of the S-band payload on the W2A satellite launched on April 3 "indicate an anomaly which requires further tests."

Since then, little has been heard from the company apart from the occasional announcement, such as the launch of EUR Radio, a free, pan-European digital satellite radio demonstration platform for the European Union. Space News noted that SES and Eutelsat have kept Solaris on life support as they decided what to do with an asset that has so far cost them a combined €130 million ($176 million), some of which they have recouped through insurance due to the satellite glitch.

In some ways, operator plans to build hybrid satellite-terrestrial networks for bandwidth-heavy applications such as mobile TV always seemed something of a gamble. When companies such as Inmarsat and Solaris Mobile first started planning the services in around 2007, there was no ecosystem to support services provided by a network that uses both satellite capacity and terrestrial repeaters. Operators were unwilling to commit to which services they would launch, and even the award of the required harmonised chunk of S-band was a nail-biting process for the operators involved--especially for Solaris Mobile.

Inmarsat never launched services in the end, according to Space News, saying the market risks were too high.

In a statement, EchoStar said it will "build upon the groundwork laid by Solaris Mobile by most immediately bringing with us access to a next generation MSS satellite which will support a wide range of innovative services across the European Union."

For more:
- see this EchoStar release
- see this Space News article

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