Satellite scrap heads to court
The Federal Communications Commission’s decision earlier this year to allow mobile satellite service providers to reuse their frequencies and offer cellular-like service alongside their satellite services is an issue terrestrial wireless operators continue to challenge in light of the fact that most MSS operators are far from introducing such a capability.
The terrestrial wireless and MSS industries have locked horns on Capitol Hill for more than two years over the MSS industry’s quest.
MSS players continually argued that incorporating an ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) would solve a fundamental problem plaguing the beleaguered MSS industry-operators’ inability to penetrate buildings with satellite signals, a technical shortfall that had a tremendous constraint on demand and resulted in higher operating and equipment costs and ultimately bankruptcies.
Terrestrial wireless operators such as Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless have vehemently opposed ATCs, arguing that the FCC gave the MSS industry free spectrum to provide satellite services — not terrestrial services that potentially could compete with them.
In late January, the commission attempted to appease both sides by giving ATC capability to MSS players in the 2 GHz, Big Leo and L-bands but reallocating 30 megahertz of MSS spectrum in the 2 GHz band to the terrestrial wireless industry.
FCC commissioners reasoned that ATCs would increase the efficiency of MSS spectrum, improve coverage, aid in homeland defense and open the MSS market up to innovative services.
The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association and terrestrial operators vowed to legally challenge the ruling.
Last month, AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review the FCC’s decision to grant MSS carriers ATC status and set aside the commission’s order.
“Converting a satellite-only authorization into a license for mixed satellite and terrestrial use was a major license change requiring the FCC to conduct an auction under Section 309 (j) of the Communications Act,” wrote AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless. “The record also showed, among other things, that authorizing terrestrial service would be inconsistent with the satellite-only basis upon which MSS licenses had recently been issued.”
The FCC in early July did clarify that MSS operators must meet certain geographical and commercial service criteria before applying for ATC status, but the terrestrial wireless industry wants more stringent guidelines.
Both CTIA and Cingular filed a petition for reconsideration with the FCC, asking the commission to make sure there are no loopholes that enable MSS licensees to funnel traffic onto cheaper terrestrial systems rather than using a substantial portion of their satellite systems.
“It goes back to the initial premise of why is the FCC allowing terrestrial operations in the satellite band?” said Brian Fontes, senior vice president of federal affairs with Cingular Wireless.
“We continue to be amazed at all the creative ways carriers come up with to try and stop us,” said Lon Levin, vice president of regulatory affairs with Mobile Satellite Ventures, the first company to file a petition with the FCC to allow ATCs and one of the satellite industry’s few players operating in the black.
It appears that MSV is the only MSS provider close to implementing ATC. The company plans to file its ATC application with the FCC shortly and provide a demonstration of the capability within six months, but a commercial deployment timeframe has not been determined.
Meanwhile, Craig McCaw-backed ICO Global Communications, which has just one satellite in orbit, again angered terrestrial operators when it attempted to assert that the commission intended that MSS licensees obtain ATC authority prior to satisfying any gating criteria.
MSS providers are relying on ATC to bring in the investments they need to build out next-generation satellites.
“Some (MSS operators) want to do a number of things,” said Fontes. “They want ATC status before they launch or build. Others want ATC status now even though they are not sure when they are going to provide service. We have problems in these environments.”
While MSV is the closest to introducing ATC capability, it has its own regulatory issues to contend with.
Inmarsat officials claim L-Band MSS operators implementing ATC on adjacent bands will cause interference to its next-generation of satellites.
The FCC decided to impose certain technical restrictions on L-Band operators who deploy ATC.
The result is a less robust ATC system because MSV is restricted on the amount of base stations is can deploy.
“We can go forward, but you always want a better system,” said Levin. “We think over time we can demonstrate that there is no interference problem.”
Carson Agnew, president and COO with MSV, said the company’s network will be based on mainstream mass market technologies, namely GSM and CDMA, which will drive down the costs of hand-held devices.
“We are working every day with prospective partners, infrastructure vendors and handset makers to refine what we’re going to do,” said Agnew. “On the investment side, we’re doing a lot of meetings, and not just first meetings.”
The FCC has made a number of stipulations that mobile satellite operators must meet before they can offer terrestrial wireless services:
- Launch and operate their own satellite facilities
- Provide “substantial” satellite service to the public
- Comply with geographic and temporal satellite coverage requirements
- Demonstrate that wireless services will operate only within core satellite spectrum
- Limit wireless operations to their authorized satellite footprint
- Provide integrated wireless/satellite services, perhaps by using dual-mode handsets
- Refrain from offering wireless-only services to the public
- Meet certain geographical and commercial gating factors before applying for ATC status
- Be subject to public comment regarding their ATC applications
Why MSS players see ATCs as critical to their survival
ATCs solve the chronic coverage problems that have plagued MSS projects to date
ATCs will improve service to rural and underserved areas and for commercial, military and public-safety applications by improving service quality and pricing.
ATCs will allow MSS operators to use spectrum more efficiently by designing integrated MSS networks that reuse spectrum already assigned to them.
Source: MSS company interviews and filings