Es’hailSat shines brightly

Satellite Company Es’hailSat may be a young firm but it is making some big strides in the broadcasting arena. Toni Vicenti reports

There is a new star shining above Qatar, soon to become a growing constellation. The entity responsible is Qatar’s young satellite company Es’hailSat, named after the Es’hail star which becomes visible in the night sky of the Middle East as summer turns to autumn and heralds cooler weather.

At the helm of the firm is Ali Ahmed Al-Kuwari, a former assistant secretary general and finance director of ictQatar, who shared with us Es’hailSat was established more out of necessity than choice. “This project started back in 2009 when Qatar started to face broadcast transmission troubles during Al Jazeera Sport’s coverage of the World Cup 2010 in South Africa. They lost a substantial amount of revenue because their broadcast signals were attacked by neighbouring countries quite deliberately. We have the same kinds of attacks today. It is common practice, especially in this region because of lack of regulation, an absence of policies and difficulty to identify the location of the interference. And even if identified, you don’t have the power to switch it off. The reasons for the interference could be political or commercial,” says Al-Kuwari.

To counter this and ensure that Qatar could continue to broadcast unimpeded, Es’hailSat undertook a programme of satellite launches to guarantee independence. Es’hail 1 satellite was the first step on a long path. From placing an order to having a satellite in orbit typically takes three years. Es’hail 1 was successfully launched mid last year and today is in commercial service. Es’hail 2 is in development and is expected to launch at the end of Q4 2016. Es’hail 3 is already well under way in the planning stage with a fleet of satellites to follow.

Al-Kuwari says, “Es’hail 1 satellite has been operational for one year now and we have started generating revenues. The satellite serves Al Jazeera, beIN Sport, Qatar TV and Qatar Army but we also serve other customers outside of Qatar because this is a strategic and commercial project. Today we have 30 plus channels. Our target is to increase viewership levels. We don’t just want to be seen to be serving Qatar. We are serving all in the region.”

The rationale for the satellite fleet has mixed justifications. “It is both strategic and commercial. From a strategic point of view, part of it has to do with state sovereignty, service availability, reliability, independence and to meet the Qatar 2030 Vision in terms of diversification,” says Al-Kuwari. “Commercially, we want to move away from being only a hydrocarbon-based economy. The government has spent a lot of money in establishing this company and our first two satellites will make enough revenue to expand without relying on government funding. By 2017 this company should be self-financing. This is our main goal.”

“Satellite is a new area for Qatar in which expertise was fairly thin on the ground. The establishment of Es’hailSat was the impetus to deploy Qatari engineers to focus on the satellite arena, to monitor its progress and to attend lectures on the commercial aspects of satellite. “Today we have Qatari engineers fully trained and have a plan to send others to Japan for further training. We also have Qatari students sitting in Surrey University studying satellite technology as part of our human development initiative in support of the national vision.”

Es’hailSat faces the same problems as other satellite companies around the world but the biggest problem is easily identified. “Spectrum is our biggest challenge. Qatar started late in this business and there is opportunity for the UK to lease some clean spectrum to Qatar,” says Al-Kuwari with an eye firmly on the future. “Es’hail 1 and 2 are enough to let us cover the MENA region but with the arrival of Es’hail 3 we will look further afield. We will look for acquisitions, JVs, partnerships and Asia is the market for that. Europe is full of satellite operators but we are looking at opportunities in Asia and Africa.”