ATC/MSS: possibly not for everyone

21 Mar 2006

Many satellite players are looking for new revenue generators these days. One potential play that has Inmarsat interested is ATC (ancillary terrestrial component)-based mobile satellite services, which are currently being planned for North America. Specifically, it's interested in partnering with someone to get in on the ATC/MSS game.

CEO Andrew Sukawaty said during the company's annual report that his company has been in ATC-related venture talks with cellcos, DBS operators, cable companies, telcos and even satellite radio operators, and reckons his I4 birds are more than up for the task. It's also clear that he sees ATC as a potential global play.

None of this is news, of course - Inmarsat has expressed an interest in ATC/MSS ever since the FCC finalized its ATC regulations a little over a year ago. The question will be if Inmarsat is blazing a trail for other satellite players to follow, or venturing (albeit cautiously) where most fear to tread.

ATC/MSS, by most accounts, will be a hard dollar for anyone. For all the hype about delivering mobile coverage to rural areas unserved by cellular, it's essentially a handheld satellite phone with an L-band terrestrial link to provide indoor coverage - something satellite phones have traditionally lacked. Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV), the flagship MSS provider, is convinced that there's a business case for targeting the rural markets, not just for basic services but also for emergency communications during disasters. Mobile satellite players like Globalstar and ICO seem convinced too, having also applied for an MSS license.

The problem is that, except for the ATC part, we have heard this before. We heard it from Globalstar, in fact, as well as Iridium, and we all know what happened to them. It's the same dream of anytime/anywhere coverage, only this time, the plan is to target niche rural US communities rather than traveling salesmen all over the globe.

At least for now. Inmarsat clearly has its eye on the global market for signs that ATC/MSS will have legs elsewhere. But that will depend on overseas regulators, who can't have failed to notice the tough time the FCC has had in hammering out ATC regs, and the way it has enraged the US cellular industry in the process. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association is furious that the FCC is not only allowing satellite companies in on its turf (even if it's rural turf they don't want), but also allocating a whopping 70 MHz of ATC spectrum for free.

The controversy doesn't stop there. Rumors abound that ATC licensee applicants are really hoping to get spectrum in the hopes that cellcos will buy them out either to get access to the spectrum or to boost rural coverage. Regulators worldwide are going to have to look seriously at these issues before they clear the way for ATC/MSS.

Even if they do, the ATC/MSS business case is still largely theoretical.

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