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Dish Adds Bird to Fleet

Dish Network successfully added a new satellite to its orbital fleet last week, bolstering its capacity at a time when it is focused on adding high-definition channels in its battle for subscribers against cable companies and larger satellite-TV provider DirecTV.

Sea Launch Co. said on July 16 that it successfully launched a Space Systems/Loral bird — EchoStar XI — aboard a Zenit-3SL. Operators at a ground station in Perth, Australia, acquired the spacecraft’s first signals from orbit shortly after spacecraft separation, and all systems performed nominally throughout the mission, Sea Launch said.

Dish didn’t say whether the new satellite had a particular role to play other than to “substantially strengthen” service. “We look forward to beginning testing and ultimately enhancing our already extensive, high-quality programming lineup,” said Rohan Zaveri, Dish vice president of Space Programs, in a press release about the launch.

Dish currently has a goal, though, of increasing the number of markets in which it retransmits local high-definition signals to 100 by the end of 2008. After four markets were added earlier this month, the count stood at 65 local HD markets, Dish has said. And the company recently said it had already hit its 2008 goal of offering 100 national HD channels, after adding 17 HD channels.

Dish Network added only 35,000 net new subscribers in the first quarter, compared with a 275,000-subscriber gain at DirecTV, which Dish CEO Charlie Ergen blamed partly on DirecTV’s having better “brand awareness” as an HD provider.

Dish’s HD-expansion effort hit a pothole in April when a newly launched SES Americom satellite, dubbed AMC-14, was declared a total loss after failing to reach proper orbit. Dish was to have added HD capacity on that satellite. HD capacity is a key factor in the provider’s competition for customers against cable and rival DirecTV. Dish had said the AMC-14 failure would not affect its short-term HD rollouts.

Analyst Jimmy Schaeffler, of the Carmel Group, said Dish won’t specifically say the new capacity will be used to make up for the loss of AMC-14. But, he noted, “any increase in bandwidth affects their ability to deliver HD.”

While the EchoStar XI launch apparently went off without a hitch, Dish said it came a day after one of its older birds bit the dust.

According to a securities filing last Wednesday, Dish’s EchoStar 2 satellite failed on July 14 and appears to be “a total loss.” The company said Echo 2 had been operating from the 148-degree orbital slot primarily as a backup satellite and had been providing local network channel service to Alaska and six other small markets.

All programming and other services previously broadcast from EchoStar 2 were restored to EchoStar 1, the primary satellite at the 148-degree location, within several hours after the failure. EchoStar 2 was launched in 1996 and has a book value of about $6.4 million, Dish said.