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Satellite Business Booming in the Middle East and North Africa: Highly Competitive Region Has 13 Operators

The 13 commercialsatellite-fleet operators active in the Middle East and North Africa showed a73 percent fill rate on their 41 Ku-band satellites in mid-2008 when measuredin booked megahertz compared to total megahertz of capacity, according to amid-2008 survey of capacity taken from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by theLondon Satellite Exchange (LSE) and Euroconsult. The satellites were spreadover 31 orbital slots.

The Ku-band fill ratejumps to 97 percent if the measure is made in the less-precise count oftransponders used versus transponders unused, because some transponders arebooked only partially, the survey found.

The survey is the latestconfirmation that the regionis among the world's most dynamic, and it explains why operators withoutsatellites in the region want to get in there, and those already there areplanning new capacity.

Transponder demandhas risen at a rate of 12 percent per year during the last five years, withmost of the new capacity in Ku-band. Commercial satellite-lease revenues havegrown by 17 percent per year on average since 2003, reaching $752 million in2007, according to Euroconsult estimates.

Not all operators aresharing the benefits, in part because fill rates are a function of the uses to which satellites areput.

A company focused onsatellite television, such as Nilesat of Egypt, is booked solid on its twosatellites, both in terms of available megahertz and available transponders.Television broadcasters typically lease entire transponders in multiyearcontracts. Nilesat recently ordered a new satellite, to be launched at thecompany's 7 degrees west orbital slot in early 2010.

But television and radiobroadcasts represented just 42 percent of the uses to which the observedsatellites were put when LSE measured demand from Dubai in mid-2008.

A majority of thesatellite capacity in the region was devoted to voice and data traffic, whosecustomers tend to sign shorter-term contracts, often for partial transponders.This gives their fill rates a higher volatility. LSE and Euroconsult said intheir survey, "Ku-Band Loading Report: Middle East and North Africa,? thatfor these applications any snapshot of demand may be less reliable.

Also distorting thefigures is the fact that some operators purposely take transponders out ofservice as they await the arrival of a large customer that has reserved thecapacity but not yet taken up residence. Such a transponder would appear as "unused?in the LSE and Euroconsult survey.

Russian SatelliteCommunications Co. of Moscow, for example, showed a 100 percent fill rate forthe transponders on the three satellites it has over the region, but just a 52percent fill rate when measured in booked versus available megahertz.

"The Russianoperator used 81 percent of its capacity for voice and data traffic, which isgenerally more volatile than broadcasting applications,? LSE and Euroconsultsaid in the report. "Thus the fill rate measured for the study as ofmid-2008 might be underestimated as compared to the average yearly value.?

With 14 satellitescarrying more than 475 transponders over the region, Eutelsat of Paris is theregion's biggest player, providing half the bandwidth available in the region.But Eutelsat shows an average fill rate of 72 percent for the 14 satellites itoperates in the region.

Among Eutelsat'ssatellites, its Atlantic Bird and "W? series satellites, which includevoice and data traffic, are less full than the company's Hot Bird series ofdirect-broadcast television spacecraft at 13 degrees east longitude, which arefull and are Eutelsat's prime source of revenue.

Eutelsat, which is in themidst of an unprecedented fleet-expansion program, plans to launch five moresatellites with footprints over the Middle East in the next 24 months: Hot Bird9 and Hot Bird 10, both to operate from 13 degrees east; W2A, to be located at10 degrees east; W2M, for 16 degrees east; and W3B, for 7 degrees east.

The company with thebiggest near-term development plans in the region, after Eutelsat, is theArabsat consortium of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which has announced plans to launchone satellite per year, on average, for the next four years. Arabsat wasreported to have a fill rate of 64 percent in terms of megahertz occupancy, and89 percent when measured in transponders that are at least partially occupied.

In terms of satellitesnow in service, the second-largest operator in the Middle East and North Africais Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington, which has 11 satellites and 144transponders capable of transmitting to the Middle East.

The Dubai-based measureof occupancy showed Intelsat's satellites 73 percent full on average whenmeasured in megahertz, and 98 percent full when measured in transponders.

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Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at