Satellite Companies Turned Terrestrial

Does anyone remember Teledesic? Founded in the 1990s by Bill Gates, Craig McCaw, Paul Allen, and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Teledesic was to launch 840 low-earth orbiting satellites (LEOs) and provide data at the then blazing speed of 720 Kbps down and 100 Kbps up from the ground.

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Satellite Companies Turned Terrestrial

Satellite communications services have, for years, filled the coverage gaps for voice and even some text and slow-speed data services around the globe. But satellite communications have been expensive to use, and work only outdoors, but they have been used to bring services to ships at sea, oil platforms, and people living in rural areas of the world where no other form of communications is available.

Over the years, satellite companies have come and gone, morphed, or been acquired. Iridium, first formed by Motorola and a host of partners, went bankrupt and was saved by a government contract for services. The Iridium service is still in existence but one of the primary issues with this system is that the smarts and the technology are in the satellites and not on the ground so upgrading to better and more robust service is not easy.

Orbcomm, which has been around for a very long time, has morphed its business many times over. When I served on the Orbcomm advisory committee years ago, it was a store-and-forward satellite communications system for data services. Today it has expanded its M2M push service and has partnered with cell phone network operators to broaden its services.

Does anyone remember Teledesic? Founded in the 1990s by Bill Gates, Craig McCaw, Paul Allen, and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Teledesic was to launch 840 low-earth orbiting satellites (LEOs) and provide data at the then blazing speed of 720 Kbps down and 100 Kbps up from the ground. The project was scrapped shortly after both Iridium and Globalstar failed, but there were and still are other satellite service companies.

Fast-Forward to 2011 and Beyond

LightSquared, which started out as American Mobile Satellite Corporation then merged with Motient, the original IBM/Motorola joint venture for terrestrial data known as ARDIS, decided to combine terrestrial LTE with satellite services. Unfortunately, those in our government who approved this concept did not take into consideration that the spectrum to be used was next to the GPS spectrum. The ensuing outcry by military and public GPS users resulted in the FCC barring LightSquared from using this spectrum for terrestrial LTE. LightSquared is in bankruptcy but still looking for a way to compete.

Dish Networks was next and obtained permission from the FCC to build out some of its satellite holdings with terrestrial LTE but then the FCC imposed a number of restrictions on the build-out including a four-year build-out time for 40% of the network and reduced RF power output. Dish, which has not given up, has tried to buy Clearwire and make a deal with Sprint, looked at T-Mobile and other options. At this point it is still in limbo.

New Entry

Recently, it has been reported by Fierce Wireless and other wireless Internet publications that the new Globalstar is seeking a waiver for some of its satellite spectrum in order to build a combined satellite/LTE/super Wi-Fi network and has teamed with Amazon to run some tests. The Globalstar system, unlike Iridium, uses its satellites in what is called a bent-pipe configuration. That means that the technology is not in the satellites but on the ground and therefore easy to upgrade since earth stations beam signals at the satellites and they, in turn bend the signal and shoot it back to earth over a wide area.

We are told that the tests being conducted involve a Wi-Fi-like local service, some terrestrial LTE, and at some point satellite services. It will be interesting to see what develops from these tests. Could Amazon and Globalstar become a player in providing broadband services in the United States and elsewhere? It is not yet clear from the little information that has been filed with the FCC and few sources know exactly what these companies are testing or what their plans are.

It will be interesting to watch as this progresses. If this is to become a mostly terrestrial system, will there be enough demand for it? If it uses the satellites, will the increased latency in the network cause problems for SSL and other types of secure sign-ons for banking and other services? How much will Globalstar charge or will this be a service available only to Amazon Kindle users? Amazon is the only company we know of today that delivers books and other content over commercial networks at no charge to the customer. Amazon has deals with the wireless operators and its sale price to the customer includes whatever fee it has to pay for delivery of the information. Amazon calls this service Whispernet.

Can any of these satellite-turned-terrestrial networks succeed? This will depend partly on how the FCC acts on their waivers or rulemaking changes. Part depends on their partnerships, the amount of money they are willing to spend, and how fast they can bring the network to market. While all of this is going on, the FCC is preparing to auction more spectrum. In the short term there should be some auctions in 2013 (for spectrum available for use in 2015-16 MHz) and then the Incentive Auctions, authorized in the Tax Relief Bill of 2012, will be held. Depending on the outcome of the TV channel relocation, this auction could be for as much as 120 MHz of prime 500-600 MHz spectrum now occupied by TV channels 32 to 52 (excluding channel 37, which is used for radio telescopes).

But it will also depend to a large degree on what devices are made available for these networks and at what cost to consumers. Today’s smartphones are being enabled by Qualcomm and others to cover many different portions of the spectrum. However, since this spectrum, if approved, will be U.S.-centric, you have to wonder if there will be sufficient demand for devices that work on these networks. There is a limit to the number of different radio bands, antennas, filters, duplexers, and other components that can be included in one device. The cost of building a greenfield LTE network to cover 95% of the United States would be about $20 billion and the ongoing operational costs will also be high. Tower space and cellular site locations are at a premium, and a Wi-Fi-type system that requires hundreds of small access points means delays and costs in permitting and installation, and an increase in the number of backhaul locations needed.

Muni-Wi-Fi systems, once the “next big thing,” are almost all a thing of the past because they were too costly to build and operate and then they provided only limited in-building coverage. Today, commercial network operators have built out more wide-area networks and filled in-building coverage with femtocells and Wi-Fi hotspots tied back to the network with Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). Catching up will be very difficult, taking deep pockets and a different business model if the network is to be a success.

As we watch the satellite companies vie for terrestrial business, how the FCC handles these issues, and how handset vendors respond to having to build more and different portions of the radio spectrum into their devices (and Congress may require any device to operate on any U.S. network), of all of those trying to re-invent themselves, perhaps the Globalstar/Amazon partnership has the best chance for success, if only for the fact that Amazon is very good at what it does and always seems to come up with a new wrinkle or twist to solve a problem. If any partnership can work, this may be the one.

Andrew Seybold

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