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CAPITAL CURRENTS: Mobile Satellite Service: Back from the dead?

Thu, 04/30/2009 - 8:15pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

When cell service is unavailable, satelliteservice is there.

I’ve written occasionally about the Broadcasting Satellite Service (BSS) and the Fixed Satellite Service (FSS), but seldom about the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS). BSS and FSS have allocated spectrum that is above 3 GHz, while MSS spectrum is below 3 GHz. BSS and FSS business models have been characterized by high demand and plenty of capital, Jeffrey Krausswhile MSS business models have been characterized by bankruptcies and FCC applications that were never constructed.

But maybe that is changing. Iridium and Globalstar both emerged from bankruptcy and are now in the process of procuring a second generation of satellites. SkyTerra (formerly called American Mobile Satellite Corp., then Motient, and then Mobile Satellite Ventures) has settled on yet another name and is building its next-generation satellites. TerreStar and ICO (actually “New ICO,” since the original design was abandoned) are soon to launch their first generation.

These companies hope to flourish by focusing on niche markets. Inmarsat, the only successful MSS operator in the past 20 years, initially focused its efforts on the high seas shipping market. But as terminal technology improved, television news operations began to use Inmarsat capacity to send back live news spots from remote areas. Maybe not high-quality video, but live video, nonetheless.

Technically, there are two kinds of MSS systems: those that operate one or two satellites from fixed geostationary locations, and those that operate a fleet of non-geostationary satellites. The non-geo satellites orbit at a lower altitude than the geo satellites, so less power is needed.

The older MSS systems with geo satellites (Inmarsat and SkyTerra) use Earth terminals with antennas the size of pizza boxes, or bigger. Some of these antennas have to be used in temporarily fixed locations and must be pointed at the satellite, while others have tracking capability and can be used while a vehicle is in motion. Newer geo satellites (ICO and TerreStar) and the non-geo systems (Iridium and Globalstar) can use small, handheld terminals a little bigger than some cell phones with omni-directional antennas. (The newest Iridium terminal is 6 inches long and weighs 9 ounces.)

Because these MSS systems operate between about 1600 MHz and about 2500 MHz, it’s possible to make a chipset that operates both on the MSS frequencies and on 1900 MHz cell phone frequencies. And Qualcomm is doing just that. TerreStar is showing a tiny prototype terminal that operates on the AT&T GSM network when available, and on the MSS satellite system otherwise.

For many of their customers – the military, public safety agencies, boaters and ships, pilots, hikers, snowmobilers, etc. – MSS is not the primary communications service, it is the backup. When cell phone service is unreliable or unavailable, satellite service is there.

So, for example, a marketing brochure shows terminals used with Inmarsat satellites to make up a “Broadband Global Area Network” for the battlefield.

Globalstar has developed a handheld product it calls “Spot” with four buttons: On/Off, OK, Help and 911. It includes a GPS receiver. If you push the OK button, it sends your location to an Internet site that uses Google Maps to show your current location and track your movements. If you push Help, in the event of a non-life-threatening emergency, you can notify your friends and family that you need assistance. If you push the 911 button, it sends your location to a rescue center that dispatches emergency responders (by helicopter, if necessary) to your location. According to Globalstar, “Spot” has helped initiate close to 145 rescues, many of which resulted in lives saved. You can buy the Spot device for $125, and the service costs $99 per year – much less than cell phone service.

Public safety agencies and rural hospitals are also target markets. If the landlines go down, if the cell phones go down, the satellites keep working. With all of the recent funding of homeland security projects and pressure for interoperability among agencies, a number of public safety agencies have signed on for satellite service.

Suppose you want to travel through China or Tajikistan on business and don’t want to trust your business conversations to the local phone system. No problem if you have an MSS phone. With satellite phones, only the NSA can monitor your conversation!

While these MSS operators can partner with cell phone operators, the FCC gave them another choice. They can construct an Ancillary Terrestrial Component – basically a terrestrial cellular network that shares spectrum with their satellites. Whether this makes sense for them remains to be seen, since they generally don’t have much spectrum to begin with. But during the FCC proceeding, the cell phone carriers were worried enough about potential competition that they opposed the FCC’s proposal.

It’s been a long haul since Inmarsat began operations in the 1980s, the American Mobile Satellite Corp. started up in the early 1990s, the Iridium bankruptcy in 1999 and the

Globalstar bankruptcy in 2002. But now, with the latest technology, we’ll be watching newcomers TerreStar and ICO, as well as the military and first responders that make up part of the target market, to see if this market really takes off.

 jkrauss@krauss.ws

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