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Astrium, Actia Sodielec To Build Ka-band Ground Network

Athena-Fidus Ka-band broadband satellite. Credit: Thales Alenia artist's concept

UPDATED 2:13 EDT

PARIS — Astrium Services and military telecommunications hardware manufacturer Actia Sodielec will build the ground network for the French military’s use of the Athena-Fidus Ka-band broadband satellite under a contract initially valued at 40 million euros ($54 million) and potentially worth 221.4 million euros, the French arms procurement agency, DGA, said Feb. 13.

The contract covers the design of what DGA calls its Comcept IP network of fixed and transportable Ka-band terminals to transmit and receive large data files from the Athena-Fidus satellite now under construction by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy.

An initial order of 20 fixed high-data-rate terminals with 2.4-meter-diameter dishes is scheduled for delivery in early 2014, Astrium Services Chief Technical Officer Eric Souleres said in a Feb. 13 interview. Within the next two years, up to 300 more terminals, including smaller versions, will be delivered.

Souleres said the contract specifies that the ground network be compatible with the civilian Global Xpress Ka-band broadband service being designed by mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London. The three Global Xpress satellites are scheduled to be launched into geostationary orbit starting this year, with global coverage, except for the poles, available in 2014.

Souleres said Astrium and Actia Sodielec have selected VT iDirect of Herndon, Va., a Global Xpress supplier, to provide commercial off-the-shelf modems for those Comcept terminals that will be made compatible with both Athena-Fidus and Global Xpress.

Like Global Xpress, Athena-Fidus will operate in both civilian and military Ka-band frequencies. France’s Comcept will be using the civilian frequencies of Global Xpress, but only the military Ka-band frequencies of Athena-Fidus.

Budgeted at about 280 million euros for construction and launch, the Athena-Fidus satellite will be owned equally by France and Italy, with each nation’s military services and civilian space agencies sharing system access and operations costs. The satellite is scheduled for launch in 2014.

In a briefing here on DGA’s 2012 performance and outlook for 2013, agency officials said ultimately they expect to order 660 Comcept ground terminals from the Astrium/Actia Sodielec team, with a total contract value of around 221.4 million euros. These too would be fixed and transportable stations, as opposed to hardware fitted onto mobile platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles or other aircraft.

In a statement issued after the DGA briefing, Astrium said the full contract includes providing services for 17 years, which would take it to the retirement of the Athena-Fidus satellite. Astrium said Actia Sodielec will be in charge of engineering, integration and operational maintenance of the ground stations.

A DGA official said the Comcept network ultimately will include mobile systems on multiple French military platforms. Astrium said future contract tranches will be for designing equipment for “vehicles, ships, planes and drones.”

“The customer has the option of ordering terminals for mobile platforms, but for the moment it is not clear which platforms will be used,” Souleres said.

The DGA official said that for the ground network, France and Italy are operating independently instead of pooling their terminal requirements for an order with a single industrial team, which would have reduced the per-unit cost of the hardware. Italy has not yet announced its supplier for the Athena-Fidus ground network.

While Astrium’s principal European satellite manufacturing rival is building Athena-Fidus, Astrium is prime contractor for Paris-based Eutelsat’s Ka-band Ka-Sat satellite, which is in operation, and for the United Arab Emirates’ two-satellite Yahsat civil-military communications system. Yahsat features a large Ka-band capacity for the United Arab Emirates’ military forces.

In a Feb. 13 statement announcing the contract, Souleres said Ka-band is “the frequency range of the future. Thanks to Comcept, the French armed forces will join their U.S. and U.A.E. counterparts in a very select group of armed forces who have military Ka-band networks.”

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