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Eleventh Bird Aloft For Dish

Dish Network is adding an 11th high-power satellite to its fleet with the successful launch of a Space Systems/Loral bird aboard a Zenit-3SL rocket early this morning, according to the Sea Launch Co.

At about 6:20 a.m. GMT, EchoStar XI was released into geosynchronous transfer orbit, on its way to a final orbital position at 110 degrees West Longitude, Sea Launch said. 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.

“For the third mission in a row, Sea Launch has successfully launched a satellite for Dish Network, and we are thrilled to add our eleventh high-power satellite to our fleet,” Rohan Zaveri, vice president of Space Programs for Dish Network, said in a statement. “We look forward to beginning testing and ultimately enhancing our already extensive, high quality programming lineup.”

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 and Exchange Commission filing Wednesday, Dish’s EchoStar 2 satellite failed on July 14 and appears to be “a total loss.” Dish said that 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 in the filing.

Dish didn’t say if the new satellite had a particular role to play other than “substantially strengthen” service. Dish currently has a goal, though, of increasing the number of markets in which it retransmits local high-definition signals to 100 markets by the end of 2008. After adding four markets earlier this month, the count stands at 65 local HD markets, Dish has said.

Dish recently said it already reached a goal of offering 100 national HD channels by year’s end, after adding 17 HD channels last week.

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 its proper orbit. Dish was to have added HD capacity on that satellite. HD capacity is a key factor in Dish’s competition for customers against cable and bigger satellite-TV provider DirecTV. Dish had said the AMC-14 failure would not affect its short-term HD rollouts.

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 having better “brand awareness” as an HD provider.

-- MCN's Mike Farrell contributed to this report.