FCC Okays Terrestrial LTE for SkyTerra

SkyTerra, a satellite phone provider which plans to launch a geosynchronous satphone over the United States this year, has received approval from the FCC for the transfer of control of the company to Harbinger Capital and use their spectrum for terrestrial “4G” LTE phone service.

By 2015, the company expects to serve more than 40 million connected consumer terrestrial devices on a wholesale basis,” Harbinger’s business plan states. Harbinger said the network will achieve population coverage of at least 260 million by 2015 (not taking into account satellite coverage), which it claims will be comparable to the coverage provided by other nationwide LTE operators.

Harbinger, a New York-based hedge fund, filed its plans with US regulators on Friday (pdf) after earlier being given approval to acquire satellite operator SkyTerra (pdf). A merger agreement between SkyTerra and Harbinger Capital calls for SkyTerra to be acquired by a new corporation wholly-owned by Harbinger. On March 22, SkyTerra stockholders overwhelmingly approved the merger with Harbinger.

Under the terms of Harbinger’s acquisition of SkyTerra, the network must be a wholesale platform but that traffic from the two largest US operators (AT&T and Verizon) is capped at 25 percent. The FCC granted SkyTerra’s application last week for LTE phone service. It will use terrestrial antennas to repeat the satellite signal, much like Sirius Satellite Radio repeats its signal on rooftops.

AT&T and Verizon criticized the U.S. FCC on Monday for blocking their ability to lease airwaves from SkyTerra.

This sort of targeted favoritism by the government has no place in free markets,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs. “This action is manifestly unwise and potentially unlawful,” Cicconi said.

Verizon spokesman David Fish said the company is reviewing options in response to the SkyTerra transaction. The FCC’s “process and the resulting restrictions are troubling,” he said.

Paul de Sa, head of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, defended the FCC’s action, noting that Harbinger volunteered those commitments.

“These commitments (by Harbinger) do not prohibit any specific transactions,” de Sa said. “But they do provide some reassurance that the approval will ignite new broadband competition while protecting the public from any potential harms.”

Tim Farrar thinks T-Mobile could be a partner in the terrestrial service. But SkyTerra plans to utilize 700 Mhz public safety frequencies, so Verizon or AT&T might be a better bet. The upcoming “D Block” could potentially add another 10 Mhz of 700 MHz spectrum. UPDATE: Since AT&T and Verizon filed negative comments about this application, it now seems more likely suitors would be T-Mobile or Sprint/ICO. Or, perhaps, whoever wins the “D Block” auction.

This approval also allows SkyTerra to implement its Cooperative Agreement with Inmarsat (which also uses the 1.5/1.6 GHz (“L Band”), which will be integrated with SkyTerra’s satellite network.

But their hidden asset is spectrum. The 20 MHz of “L Band” spectrum can also be reused though terrestrial repeaters, the Ancillary Terrestrial Component (pdf).

“We’re very encouraged that the FCC has already started to realize the promise of its Broadband Plan,” said Alexander H. Good, chairman, chief executive officer and president of SkyTerra. “The FCC said in the Broadband Plan that it wanted to accelerate efforts to make L-band usable for broadband ATC service. These two orders do exactly that.”

SkyTerra’s much delayed satellite phone service, unlike Iridium and GlobalStar, uses geosynchrounous satellites. Geosynchrounous satellites look down from a “stationary” position and therefore don’t cover the entire planet. To enable pocketable satphones, huge antennas, about 20 meters (60 feet) across are utilized in deep space.

Geosynch satphone providers include:

  • TerreStar’s satphone service: Now operational. It features dual-band operation, working with AT&T’s cellular network for ubiquitous service throughout North America. Uses 20 MHz in the MSS Band: (1.7/2.1 GHZ). Now operational with a single satellite, but service has not begun commercially. Dual-band phones can use AT&T’s cellular service and the MSS band using ATC. The 18 meter Harris antenna focuses 2 GHz spotbeams on the United States and Canada in order to provide enough signal strength.
  • Skyterra satphone service: Same deal but operates in the lower “L Band” (1.5/1.6 GHz). May be available later this year, after their satellite launches. SkyTerra1 and SkyTerra2, based on the Boeing 702 design, are scheduled for launch during 2010. It will combine both terrestrial 700 MHz Public Safety networks and satellites.
  • Inmarsat: Uses mobile terminals for Internet access but does not provide voice service from handheld phones. Operates in the “L Band” (1.5/1.6 GHz).
  • Thuraya: Covers the middle East and adjoining areas. A 12 x 16 meter reflector, 128 element L-band antenna supports up to 200 separate spot beams.
  • ICO: Provides MSS coverage over the United States with a huge spotbeam antenna. The planned mobile multimedia service has not yet been offered even though the satellite has been operational for nearly two years.

FCC rulemaking permits Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) licensees in the 2 GHz (1990-2025 MHz and 2165-2200 MHz) bands (where ICO and Terrastar operate), the L-band (1525-1544 MHz/1545-1559 MHz) and 1626.5-1645.5 MHz/1646.5-1660.5 MHz) bands (where Inmarsat and Skyterra operate), and the “Big LEO” (1610-1626.5 MHz and 2483.5-2500 MHz) bands (where Globalstar and Iridium operate).

The new network will rely initially on 23 MHz spectrum owned by SkyTerra and could later include spectrum from Terrestar Networks, another satellite firm in which Harbinger holds a stake, says Gigaom.

The network will employ MSS spectrum, Ancillary Terrestrial Component (“ATC”) spectrum, and terrestrial-only spectrum, as well as spectrum hosting and pooling agreements, all supplemented as appropriate with roaming agreements.

Infineon, SkyTerra, and TerreStar Networks are jointly developing a multi-standard mobile platform based on Infineon’s software-defined-radio (SDR) technology. Infineon’s SDR mobile platform, called XMM SDR 200, requires only one single baseband device, the X-GOLD™ SDR 20 and one single RF transceiver.

Using satellite phone frequencies on some 36,000 terrestrial towers is expected to enable Harbinger to bring 4G terrestrial wireless broadband technology to underserved areas. Harbinger said in its statements to the FCC that all major markets will have ATCs installed by the end of the second quarter of 2013. But it won’t be cheap. Harbinger, as a hedge fund, may also be inclined to flip it at the earliest opportunity, removing value for end users.

At the outset, the network will have no less than 23 MHz of spectrum, consisting of 8 MHz of 1.4 GHz terrestrial spectrum, access to 5 MHz of 1.6 GHz terrestrial spectrum and 10 MHz of MSS/ATC L-band spectrum. Through a cooperation agreement with Inmarsat and associated waivers of the Commission’s ATC rules, by 2013 Harbinger will have access to an additional 30 MHz of ATC spectrum. The planned network would launch before the third quarter of 2011.

Meanwhile, Terrestar a similar giant spot beam satellite phone system was successfully launched last year and has been testing dual band (cellular and satellite) handheld devices in the MSS band at 1.7/2.1 GHz.

On January 13, 2010, the FCC granted the company authority to integrate TerreStar’s 20 MHz S Band spectrum into its next generation terrestrial mobile wireless network. Presumably, that would also result in LTE “4G” service on the satellite’s 2 GHz band.

TerreStar plans to enhance coverage, capacity and throughput by providing ubiquitous North American access to voice and data services through conventional wireless devices.

In the “S” band (2GHz), TerreStar has the right to use 20 MHz of its spectrum terrestrially, as does ICO. In the 1.6 GHz “L” band, MSV’s Skyterra has a similar capability, while LEO satphone provider Globalstar will use 11 MHz of its 1.6/2.4 GHz satellite radio frequencies for a complementary terrestrial wireless service. Globalstar is in partnership with Open Range, which hopes to offer state-of-the-art 4G services to un-served and underserved customers across America in the fourth quarter of this year.

New ABI Research forecasts, some three million satellite-capable LTE smartphones will be shipped in North America in 2012. But, according to the same research, the promising forecast is contingent upon the 4G strategies of US cellular network operators.

There are at least 3 billion people on the planet who have no affordable way to connect to the Internet–a problem Google aims to solve by helping foot the bill for the launch of 16 satellites in the O3B constellation.

The O3B satellite network (”O3B” stands for “the other 3 billion”) is set for launch in late 2010. An ISP would install a pair of high-tech antennas capable of tracking multiple satellites and establish a 155-megabit per-second connection to the global Web. ISPs could use 3G cellular and WiMax towers for local connections. Each satellite in the network will have 10 spot beams, each delivering in excess of 1Gbit/s.

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Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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