According to the Financial Times, T-Mobile is planning to launch a national U.S. LTE network, in partnership with Harbinger Capital Partners. Harbinger (Wikipedia) owns large stakes in Inmarsat, SkyTerra and Terrestar. It would use those satellite frequencies to create their “4G” cellular network.
Harbinger wants to strike wholesale deals with established mobile operators, but they have told the FCC that the company would prevent AT&T or Verizon from using more than 25% of the new network’s total traffic. They plan to build a nationwide, wholesale LTE network using some 36,000 terrestrial cell sites using both terrestrial and MSS spectrum, following the firm’s merger in March with satellite operator SkyTerra.
In 2001, SkyTerra unveiled a hybrid Mobile Satellite System (MSS). It would use an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (terrestrial repeater) so users of the system would be able to transmit and receive information like a cell phone, using lightweight, handheld mobile terminals. The would communicate through nearby cell towers and fall back to the satellite when out of terrestrial range. SkyTerra does not have to buy new spectrum — it can reuse their dedicated MSS frequencies.
The satellite phone industry argued that incorporating an ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) would enable failing satellite operators to penetrate buildings and cars with satellite signals, making the industry more competive with cellular. Their technical arguments (and technology) was similar to Sirius satellite radio, which uses repeaters on rooftops.
The FCC agreed, and allowed the 2 GHz MSS spectrum (pdf) to be used for both satellites and terrestrially. The 40 megahertz of spectrum (in the 2000-2020 MHz and 2180-2200 MHz bands) was split equally between ICO and Terrestar, each getting 10 MHz up and down.
Both ICO and TerreStar have made investor presentations indicating that if their respective 20MHz spectrum allocations were valued on the same basis as the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum auctioned by the FCC in summer 2006, then their spectrum would be worth over $4B to each company. The TMF Associates MSS blog has more details (PDF).
In a March 26, 2010 letter to the FCC, Harbinger wrote (pdf):
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.
Harbinger also is discussing with other Commission licensees the possibility of hosting or pooling their spectrum in order to enable them on the terrestrial wireless network, i.e., the spectrum would be incorporated into the infrastructure of the terrestrial wireless network. The hosted or pooled spectrum then could be integrated with Harbinger’s spectrum to enhance the broadband capacity of the terrestrial network.
As planned, the network will consist of SkyTerra’s next generation satellites, approximately 36,000 terrestrial base stations, multi-frequency mode user handsets and other consumer devices, a terrestrial cell site and backhaul network, network operations centers, and the networks of other terrestrial carriers with whom Harbinger plans to have roaming agreements.
So called “4G” spectrum is hot, and T-Mobile could use greenfield spectrum to deploy “4G”. AT&T and Verizon are building nationwide LTE networks in the 700 MHZ band, while Sprint is using WiMAX in the 2.6 GHz band. T-Mobile is currently deploying HSPA+ in the AWS band (1.7/2.1 GHz)
Installing 36,000 terrestrial base stations will cost billions, but T-Mobile already has close to 50,000 tower sites around the United States. Reusing satellite frequencies could save some $4 billion, which is what T-Mobile paid for their AWS frequencies.
It reportedly needs to raise between US$1 billion and US$2 billion in equity and bank financing to fund the network. As well as T-Mobile USA, other potential strategic investors are thought to include Qwest Communications and SK Holdings.
The Mobile Satellite Spectrum (MSS) is near the AWS band where T-Mobile has 3G service. Their HSPA+ network should cover nearly 200 million people by the end of the year while Sprint and Clear’s WiMAX network expects to cover some 120 million people by the end of the year and Verizon boldly claims their LTE network will cover some 100 million people in the United States by the end of the year.
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.
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