Satellite gets back into the game
The mobile satellite services, or MSS, industry appears to be entering a resurrection period as several companies have launched — or plan to launch — new satellites to offer ubiquitous voice and high-speed data services to government, enterprises and consumers — without the clunky handsets of the past in some cases.
The moves come after a series of financial disasters in the late 1990s for MSS companies such as Iridium, Globalstar, ICO and Teledesic. Iridium and Globalstar subsequently reorganized and changed their business models to target niche markets.
ICO Global Communications launched its ICO G1 satellite last month, becoming the first operational S-band mobile satellite services provider in North America. Its target market, however, is the mass consumer market. The hybrid satellite-terrestrial network will use mobile TV technology DVB-H. The company plans to begin market trials in Las Vegas and Raleigh-Durham in mid-2008 of what it calls ICO MIM, (Mobile Interactive Media), which will provide entertainment and guidance services that will include real-time traffic data and emergency roadside services similar to those provided by OnStar.
Partners in the trial include Alcatel-Lucent, which is providing the DVB-SH technology; Hughes; and WiMAX operator Clearwire, which is lending a wireless broadband offering to the mix. Last fall, Clearwire announced a joint agreement with ICO. Craig McCaw, who founded Clearwire, owns a 75% voting interest in ICO.
Meanwhile Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV), which already offers satellite telephony service to niche markets such as push-to-talk government users, is planning to launch two new high-power satellites designed to put old satellite systems to shame by enabling smaller, sleeker and cheaper devices and higher speed data applications. (See MRT, February 2008, page 20.)
The difference this time will be a system capable of superior link margin, full redundancy, and capacity and coverage no terrestrial operator can match, said Wade Alt, MSV’s vice president of corporate development. The operator plans to launch service in 2010.
While MSV is targeting a host of markets, the government sector alone represents $1.2 billion in cumulative revenues over the last five years, Alt said. That figure doesn’t even take into account the revenues realized from mobile disaster recovery, secure border communications and interoperable communications for first responders.
Alt said that one of MSV’s keys to success would be the ability to take advantage of hybrid technology. “It was important for MSV to prove we could integrate with existing chip sets. Satellite on its own was not enough. You can’t have people walking around with clunky devices.”
Another key factor was obtaining approval from the FCC to deploy an ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) that is designed to solve a fundamental problem plaguing the MSS industry: operators’ inability to penetrate buildings with satellite signals. That technical shortfall has tremendously constrained demand and resulted in higher operating and equipment costs in the past.
MSV doesn’t have a terrestrial partner at this point but Alt says the company is looking for one, whether that’s a WiMAX or long-term evolution operator. In January, the FCC waived a requirement that the company build a ground-based spare satellite in the event of satellite failure. In the order, the commission found that “the requested waiver will strike an appropriate balance between ensuring continuity of satellite service to customers and minimizing cost burdens on the satellite operator,” according to the company.
Meanwhile, TerreStar Networks, formerly known as Motient, announced plans to build an all-IP integrated satellite/terrestrial network in North America. The company says it will offer a wholesale business model with priority access for first responders and allow other wireless carriers, third-party developers and portal companies to use the network, which TerreStar plans to roll out in late 2008 or early 2009.