GPS debate could jeopardize LightSquared’s push-to-talk satellite business
Amid all the focus on LightSquared’s bid to become a player in the terrestrial LTE market — an effort that may be undone by interference concerns from the GPS industry — some may forget that LightSquared’s existing business is providing satellite communications, including the only push-to-talk satellite offering in the industry. But that business could be in trouble, if the carrier is prohibited from pursuing its LTE plans.
Indeed, a harsh reality for satellite providers is that they launch a $1 billion satellite and then spend the next 10 to 20 years getting enough revenue from users to launch another satellite when the cycle is complete. In addition, satellite providers still have to pay the normal business costs — from technical support to marketing — associated with being a communications provider.
In the case of LightSquared (previously known as SkyTerra, and the company was called Mobile Satellite Ventures before that) the satellite network has never claimed more than 300,000 users at a given time, according to Jeff Carlisle, LightSquared’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs and public policy. By comparison, T-Mobile — the smallest nationwide cellular carrier in the U.S. — has more than 100 times as many subscribers, and it has about one-third as many subscribers as cellular behemoths AT&T and Verizon.
“The satellite company, in and of itself, is not sustainable over the long term — we know that,” Carlisle said. “It’s too small of a market to support the capital investment needed to launch a new satellite every 15 years. This is why you see a lot of satellite companies that have gone through restructuring.”
LightSquared planned to change its business model by reusing its 1.5 GHz spectrum to support a terrestrial network that would provide wholesale LTE services to a variety of commercial operators, enabling regional cellular carriers to compete with the nationwide operators and to provide a cellular option to entities such as cable companies that want to offer bundled packages to customers.
With a much larger user base of cellular customers — LightSquared has announced contracts with almost 40 operators to date — the financial dynamics promised to change for the company after deploying LTE, Carlisle said.
“You’re recovering the cost of the entire network across a much larger set of users,” he said. “Adding a satellite to a cellular network is not that significant in additional cost, and you can recover it over millions and millions of users. So, basically, you’ve created a situation where you can launch another satellite every 15 years without too much trouble.
“But, without that [LTE network], I don’t know if this is sustainable.”
That could be a problem for some public-safety and government agencies. Many use the LightSquared satellite network sparingly, but it is an important piece of their continuity plans — a communication method that it not hindered by a large-scale disaster that could make terrestrial systems unavailable. In remote areas, particularly in the western half of the U.S., the satellite push-to-talk service is a primary communication method, because it is not economically feasible to deploy an LMR system in certain locations.
In recent years, the company has established interoperability for a variety of users — from public safety to infrastructure users — through its Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (SMART) program. Meanwhile, LightSquared has an operational next-generation satellite that is designed to provide new services to users.
“As long as we have a viable business, we will always be committed to our public-safety solutions,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got cutting-edge technology that nobody else has, and we’ll continue to be committed to that. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find our way through this thicket and make sure that this capability will be provided into the future.”
Indeed, regardless how this GPS-LTE squabble ends, we certainly hope the push-to-talk satellite service can continue. There is little doubt that public safety and other first responders need more choices, particularly solutions that are designed to work when terrestrial networks are unavailable.
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