The heaviest payload ever launched by an Atlas rocket, Craig McCaw’s ICO G-1 (pdf), achieved successful separation today (video), one of the biggest gambles yet for the telecom entrepreneur, as Telephony Online reports. Ground controllers have acquired the first signals from the ICO G1 spacecraft and delivered the ICO G1 within one nautical mile of the target orbit.
The cost of the ICO-1 satellite, constructed by Space Systems/Loral, the booster rocket (built by Lockheed Martin) and the launch mission itself (handled by United Launch Alliance) is running half a billion dollars, and ICO hasn’t even started building the terrestrial system yet.
ICO G1 is over 27 feet tall, with a 39 foot mesh reflector that will be unfurled in space and a pair of power-generating solar wings to span over 100 feet. Weighing 14,625 pounds, it is the heaviest satellite ever launched aboard an Atlas V booster and will be located at 92.85 degrees west, providing ubiquitous coverage over the United States.
The satellite, based on Loral’s 1300 platform, and a network of ground repeaters, will enable ICO to market an interactive media service combining live TV, enhanced navigation and emergency assistance across the United States starting next year.
ICO Global spent years over technology re-direction and regulatory wrangling.
Now, instead of the voice and broadband network originally planned, ICO is pursuing mobile TV, creating a broadcast network that blankets the US with a common digital video signal and using cellular transmitters to fill in the gaps in dense urban areas.
The result will be a mobile TV that ICO can pit directly against Qualcomm’s MediaFLO as well as possible resurgence of Digital Video Broadcast-Handheld (DVB-H) technology in the US that has long been written off for dead.
ICO is using a variant of DVB-H called DVB-Satellite services to Handhelds (DVB-SH). It uses the same S-band 2-GHz spectrum to transmit both from space and on the ground. ICO G-1 will provide the bulk of the coverage, using ground-based beam-forming techniques. Meanwhile, terrestrial networks in major urban areas will reinforce the signal in urban canyons and hilly terrain where there is no direct line of site to the heavens.
To fill in its footprint, ICO estimates it will have to build 1500 to 2000 transmission sites using Alcatel-Lucent gear. The costs of each site will be comparable to that of building a cellular site, but in order to achieve nationwide coverage, ICO must build far fewer of them. “If we were to build a nationwide cellular network, it would take 20,000 to 30,000 sites,” said Christopher Doherty, VP of public relations for ICO. “To give you an example, we think it will only take 14 sites to cover Raleigh-Durham.”
Once the darling of Wall Street, operators like Iridium, Motient, Globalstar and ICO all went bankrupt at the turn of the millennium as their plans to offer global satellite voice and data coverage fizzled. McGaw bailed ICO out of bankruptcy in 2000 and became the company’s chairman.
The company faced other problems; its first Hughes-built satellite wound up at the bottom of the South Pacific. It successfully launched a medium Earth orbit satellite from Cape Canaveral in 2001, but plans to launch the remaining 9 satellites to complete the global voice and data network went on hold indefinitely.
In 2003, ICO and the satellite providers successfully lobbied the FCC to allow them to use their spectrum for both terrestrial and satellite service. Since then the satellite business has enjoyed a revival. While companies like Motient—renamed Terrestar—pursued their original broadband and voice plans, ICO used the opportunity to pursue an entirely new business model: mobile TV.
Qualcomm is the clear dominant player in mobile TV in the US with MediaFLO that uses 700 MHz spectrum. Qualcomm has signed on two major cellular operators to carry its TV service, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, but because the 700 MHz band hasn’t been fully cleared by its current broadcaster occupants, MediaFLO has launched only in limited markets. Still, only 4.6% of U.S. wireless users watch video on their handsets, according to M:Metrics, while more than 13% access the Internet on their phones.
When ICO’s mobile TV service goes live in 2009, it could be facing a fairly entrenched competitor. But ICO is pursuing larger stand-alone media players, taking advantage of DVB-SH’s larger screen resolution and 500 kb/s channel capacity. “We don’t want to focus on the small cellular screen, which is really only good for watching a 4-minute clip,” Doherty said.
ICO will focus on in-vehicle displays offering at first a “set-top box in the trunk” that links into the on-dash or rear-seat displays in cars, SUVs and vans. Not only will it provide 10 to 15 channels of TV, the two-way capabilities of the network will allow it deliver vehicle navigation services as well as emergency two-way calling and messaging.
Hughes has already agreed to manufacture devices for the initial deployment, and DiBcom has agreed to supply DVB-SH chipsets. ICO is also partnering with fellow McGaw venture Clearwire to trial a potential hybrid Mobile WiMAX and TV service.
Qualcomm won’t be leaving the in-vehicle market to ICO. Today at the National Association of Broadcasters conference, Qualcomm announced its first live demonstration of MediaFLO piped directly to a car entertainment system.
In the UK both T-Mobile and Orange are about to launch trials using the competing MBMS (Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) technology, which utilises existing 3G networks and spectrum. The technology for that trial is being provided by NextWave Wireless. Up to 4 GSM Timeslots may be used for one MBMS bearer in the downlink.
Related Mobile television articles on DailyWireless include; The Masters: Triple Play, Samsung Phones Do Media, Dishes, AT&T Goes with FLO, What’s Dish Network Planning?, WiMAX TV from NextWave, BBCiPlayer on iPhone, MediaFLO: In Trouble?, YouTube Mobilizes, Motorola Does DVB-H, Italy Testing DVB-SH Mobile TV, The War on Mobile TV, ICO Wants Its Mobile TV – via DVB-SH, Mobile/Handheld TV: Killer App? and Mobile TV War at NAB 2007.