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LANDSCAPE COMPETITIVE TO MOBILE SATELLITE FIRMS

WASHINGTON-Where mobile satellite service policymaking is concerned, federal regulators are not promoting the friendly skies. Far from it.

Competition is the name of the game at the Federal Communications Commission. The heavenly stage is being set for wireless Star Wars-close encounters of the unfriendly kind to be fought on land among mobile satellite juggernauts.

One of the players, American Mobile Satellite Corp., of Reston, Va., last week began commercially operating a new system driven by a powerful L-band (1.5-1.6 GHz) geostationary satellite with four spot beams covering all of North America.

The FCC added icing to the cake by ruling AMSC can offer international as well as domestic mobile satellite service. Lon Levin, a vice president at AMSC, said, “We can now provide service throughout our entire service area.”

Times have changed. Low-earth-orbit and medium-earth-orbit satellite technology now is in vogue, a new global wireless marketplace is emerging and international regulatory processes are being streamlined in recognition of these trends.

With the move to competition comes a host of legal, technical and economic issues that will occupy the FCC in 1996. “The bureau has the most ambitious agenda for mobile satellite service that the commission has ever seen,” said Scott Harris, chief of the FCC’s International Bureau.

It’s not that policymakers and industry have been sitting on their hands. The United States secured more spectrum (feeder links) for big LEOs-global pocket telephone satellite systems-at the World Radio Communication Conference last fall in Geneva.

“We now know what is available to us and where we can go,” said John Feneley, director of international and regulatory affairs at Odyssey Telecommunications International Inc. of Montreal. “We are on equal footing with geostationary systems.”

Odyssey is a joint venture of TRW Inc., one of three big LEOs licensed last January, and Teleglobe Canada.

Motorola Inc.’s Iridium and Loral-Qualcomm L.P.’s Globalstar networks are the other two. But up to two more non-geostationary MSS operators could be licensed by the FCC in 1996.

Wednesday is the deadline for the three remaining applicants-AMSC, Constellation Communications Inc. and Mobile Communications Holdings Inc.-to file financial data with the FCC. The FCC’s licensing scheme can accommodate only two more mobile satellite service providers.

Besides having to compete with each other, U.S. mobile satellite firms will have to go up against ICO Global Communications Ltd., a spinoff of the International Mobile Satellite Organization.

Yet, ICO is not sure whether one of its biggest prospective investors-Comsat Corp. of Bethesda, Md.-can ante up. The Clinton administration will decide this year whether Comsat, the U.S. signatory to Inmarsat and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, can invest in ICO.

There is concern that ICO not gain a competitive advantage over big LEOs by inheriting special privileges and legal immunities enjoyed by Inmarsat nation members.

Fenely said TRW-Teleglobe will hit ICO with a fat patent infringement lawsuit if ICO deploys a MEO satellite system. The design belongs to Odyssey, and Odyssey only, he asserted.

ICO, noted Fenely, also confronts the challenge faced by personal communications services firms in the United States of financing the relocation of fixed microwave users from the 2 GHz band to most likely higher frequencies.

Little LEOs-worldwide wireless data satellite systems-did not fare as well at WRC-95, but Harris said efforts will be made at the next conference in two years to find more frequencies for those networks. Preparation for that conference begins next month, the earliest U.S. start ever for a major International Telecommunication Union gathering.

Until then, the FCC is in a bit of a bind. The agency has issued little LEO permits to Orbital Communications Corp., Starsys Global Positioning Inc. and Volunteers in Technical Assistance. But it accepted a handful of additional applications for little LEO licenses on the assumption there would be sufficient spectrum to accommodate more competitors.

Federal regulators will examine to what extent, if any, they will allow foreign-licensed mobile satellite operators to provide service in the United States.

Satellite licensing procedures will be put under the microscope, too. “We want to take a thorough look at the regulatory approach,” said the FCC’s Harris. International coordination of satellite systems remains a challenge for all countries.

Little LEOs and big LEOs and MEOs, meanwhile, are at the mercy of foreign bureaucracies insofar as the speed or slowness with which they implement WRC-95 spectrum decisions.

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