A new age of global wireless telecommunications is beginning as barriers to competition fall and innovative satellite technologies move from the drawing board to the heavens.

For developing and underdeveloped countries, mobile satellite communications could become a key component of their telecommunications networks. Ordinary pocket phones will be made to work virtually anywhere on the planet, whether in an African tribal village or in Greenwich Village.

“The international environment for communications is changing drastically and that is why we created the International Bureau,” said Scott Harris, head of the new unit at the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC’s regulatory approach to international telecommunications, said Harris, is simple: competition, competition and more competition.

The U.S. government is urging countries around the world to adopt open and flexible regulations that promote telecommunications competition. That message has been propagated loudest in Eastern Europe, Latin American, Asia and Africa where democratic reforms are taking hold and huge new markets are opening.

“People can learn from our success and our mistakes,” said Harris. As such, international telecommunications now has a higher priority at the FCC than at any time in the past.

Last month the agency granted a license to Orbital Communications Corp. to operate a next-generation data communications satellite system. The Dulles, Va., firm will not be alone in space. Starsys Global Positioning Inc., Volunteers in Technical Assistance, a non-profit group, and Leo One USA also have applications pending for “little LEO” (low-earth-orbiting) systems-those like Orbcomm’s that propose non-voice communications below the 1 GHz band.

Meanwhile, final rules have been adopted for “big LEO” satellite systems that promise pocket telephone service around the world.

Recently, the FCC granted waivers to three applicants-Motorola Inc., Mobile Communications Holdings Inc. and Loral-Qualcomm Satellite Services Inc.-to begin constructing at their own risk the multi-billion dollar projects before licenses are awarded.

The other three firms vying for five big LEO licenses are TRW Inc., Constellation Communications Inc. and American Mobile Satellite Corp. If all six big LEO firms are deemed qualified after revised applications are filed next week, the FCC will auction licenses. The first permits are expected to be issued by Jan. 31.

The International Maritime Satellite Organization, a consortium of 75 countries that enjoys certain legal immunities and privileges, plans to operate a global pocket phone satellite network, too.

Inmarsat’s plans don’t sit well with U.S. mobile satellite firms, which oppose the idea of Comsat Corp., the U.S. signatory to Inmarsat, having an advantage before the wireless satellite phone market gets off the ground.

The solution, according to Comsat and the Clinton administration, is to strip Inmarsat of its quasi-governmental status and let it compete in the marketplace.

House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., is floating draft legislation to make Inmarsat and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, a 134 member-nation group, private.


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