Changes are underway in the nation's wireless data networks, with promises of additional services and new technologies just around the corner. This month we'll take a look at a couple of space-based communications providers and finish off with the latest auction results from the FCC.
American Mobile Satellite Corporation
A number of changes are taking place at American Mobile Satellite Corporation (AMSC), a Virginia-based provider of mobile communications services.
AMSC launched their first satellite, AMSC-1, in 1995 to provide mobile satellite services to customers in North America. After a rocky start and some problems during on-orbit testing, they began offering telephone, data, and position reporting services to mobile customers from their geosynchronous orbital slot at 101 degrees West longitude. After two years and more than $600 million to build and launch their satellite network, AMSC admitted that the demand for mobile satellite services had not developed as quickly as they had hoped. In order to generate some cash flow on their underutilized satellite, late last year AMSC filed with the FCC to lease AMSC-1 (now called MSAT-2) and their ground station technology to African Continental Telecommunications, Inc. (ACTEL), a South Africa-based communications project. Under the plan, ACTEL will move MSAT-2 to a position over sub-Saharan Africa and use it serve mobile users and remote villages in southern Africa. A renewable five year lease will generate payments of $38 million a year for AMSC. The Commerce Department has already approved the export of MSAT-2.
In order to continue serving their existing 29,000 or so customers, AMSC will use capacity on a satellite owned by TMI Communications and Company, L.P., a Canadian operator AMSC has worked with in the past. In 1996 TMI launched MSAT-1, a Hughes-built satellite almost identical to MSAT-2 with the exception of a telemetry frequency at 11,702.75 MHz. Under their agreement, AMSC and TMI will jointly own MSAT-1, each using half the spacecraft power and each retaining control of their assigned transponders.
MSAT-1 currently sits at 106.5 degrees West longitude and provides mobile satellite services to Canada under a Canadian license. In order to allow ACTEL to test MSAT-2 prior to moving it, AMSC will transition their customers to MSAT-1 at 106.5 degrees for approximately two months. Since MSAT-1 is further west than MSAT-2, there is a possibility that AMSC customers in the eastern Caribbean will not be able to access the satellite during that time.
Once ACTEL moves MSAT-2 to a new orbital slot over Africa, AMSC and TMI will move MSAT-1 to the vacated location at 101 degrees West longitude. To conserve on-board fuel, this movement of 5.5 degrees is expected to take about a week, and AMSC proposes to operate MSAT-1 while it is in transit.
The agreements to lease MSAT-2 and share MSAT-1 are subject to a number of conditions, including the ability of ACTEL to raise at least $120 million in financing.
AMSC will continue to offer its Skycell Satellite Telephone Service to customers in the fifty United States and the Caribbean, as well as boundary waters along the coast. Portable, briefcase-sized telephones costing anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 provide a circuit-switched voice connection anywhere the user has a clear view of the satellite. A basic subscription starts at $15 a month, with airtime fees of about $1.50 a minute.
AMSC is currently authorized for L-band uplink (mobile terminal to spacecraft) transmissions at 1646.5 MHz to 1660.5 MHz and L-band downlink (spacecraft to mobile terminal) transmissions at 1545 MHz to 1559 MHz. AMSC also holds authorization from the FCC to launch AMSC-2 and AMSC-3 into orbital slots of 62 and 139 degrees West longitude, however it is not clear if and when AMSC will exercise those authorizations.
After a financial restructuring and a public bond offering, in March of this year AMSC completed the purchase of ARDIS Company, the nationís largest terrestrial two-way data network. Motorola sold their wholly-owned ARDIS packet radio network subsidiary to AMSC for $50 million in cash and $50 million in stock, removing a potential conflict after finding that ARDIS was competing with some of Motorolaís large two-way paging customers. With the addition of ARDIS, AMSC claims more than 80,000 subscribers and service revenue of more than $60 million per year.
As reviewed in the August 1997 column of PCS Front Line, ARDIS was developed by Motorola and IBM in the 1980s for use by IBM field technicians and is the oldest wireless data network currently in operation. ARDIS serves more than 56,000 mobile users via approximately 1,100 transmitters in the 800 MHz band.
Table 1: Some common ARDIS frequencies.
RadioMail, Mail-on-the-Run, and AirMobile Wireless are three off-the-shelf products offered by ARDIS, as well as customized messaging services for business customers. A typical ARDIS application would involve a field technician equipped with a handheld modem and laptop PC who would receive service assignments, repair instructions and parts availability information over the two-way network.
AMSC has already begun to market a "dual-mode" service for long-haul transportation companies, who would use the ARDIS terrestrial service while in large cities and switch to AMSC's satellite service while out on the open road.
RAM Mobile Data USA L.P., the primary competitor to ARDIS, is now fully owned by BellSouth, which bought out RAM Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year and renamed the company BellSouth Wireless Data. They plan to add 500 new base stations this year and hope to offer nationwide coverage comparable to one-way paging. Using Ericssonís Mobitex platform, BellSouth claims the network covers 93% of U.S. urban business population.
At the end of March three-quarters of the IRIDIUM satellite constellation were in orbit. The successful launch of a Boeing Delta II rocket on March 30 added five more space vehicles to the network, bringing the orbiting total to 56. The remaining 10 are on schedule for launch as IRIDIUM targets a commercial start date of September 23, 1998.
IRIDIUM achieved what they proclaim as another first when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) granted them "country status" and assigned them their own country code of +8816. IRIDIUM subscribers will be reachable anywhere in the world they have coverage by a single telephone number with the country prefix of 8816. Of course, Inmarsat has had country codes of +870 through +874 for some time, and competing satellite systems have been assigned similar codes, such as +8810 for ICO and +8818 for GlobalStar.
Potential subscribers got a peek at what it may cost to use the IRIDIUM system when service begins this fall. Nippon Iridium, the Japanese operator of the IRIDIUM service, released pricing information and will provide telephony and paging services to domestic and international subscribers. The costs of calling are somewhat complicated, since the rates depend on where the telephone is being used and what plan the subscriber is signed up for.
All subscribers will have a twelve digit number and pay a sign-up fee of about $77 in addition to a monthly fee of $50. Paging customers will be charged $100 per month, or $30 per month if theyíve signed up for telephone service as well.
An international plan subscriber will have a twelve-digit phone number beginning with 8816. Calls placed to an IRIDIUM phone will cost $6.54 per minute. The cost of calls to another IRIDIUM phone will be based on the location of the caller, anywhere from $6.59 in China to $4.64 in North America. The same type of zone system applies to outgoing calls to non-Iridium phones, anywhere from $8.11 for calls to Africa down to $4.52 for calls to destinations in Asia.
A domestic plan subscriber will have a twelve-digit phone number beginning with 8817, and will be restricted to use only within Japan. Calls to such a phone will cost $2.61 per minute. A call to another IRIDIUM subscriber will cost $2.67 per minute. Calls from an IRIDIUM phone to a non-Iridium phone run $1.67 per minute.
IRIDIUM handsets are designed to first use the terrestrial GSM network, and switch to satellite only if no local cellular network is available. While roaming on local terrestrial networks, subscribers may be charged the local rate plus $1.07 to $2.04 per minute for calls made to non-Iridium phones, and from $7.73 to $8.71 per minute for calls made to a roaming IRIDIUM phone.
Regardless of the these costs, IRIDIUM is projecting 650,000 voice and 350,000 paging customers by the year 2000.
Yet another FCC auction has come to a close, this time for Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS). As covered in the January, 1998, PCS Front Line column, 986 licenses were on the block with two licenses available in each of the nationís 493 Basic Trading Areas (BTAs). The larger A-block license covers 1150 MHz of spectrum in three chunks: 27,500 MHz to 28,350 MHz, 29,100 MHz to 29,250 MHz, and 31,075 MHz to 31,225 MHz. The smaller B-block is 150 MHz of spectrum made up of two slices, 31,000 MHz to 31,075 MHz and 31,225 to 31,300 MHz.
Table 2: Top three LMDS auction winners.
This auction, the 17th held by the FCC, began on February 18, 1998, with 139 qualified bidders. 128 rounds later on March 25 the auction closed with 104 winners. The total amount of bids was $578,663,029, falling far short of the $4 billion expected for the U.S. Treasury. 379 A-block licenses covering 90% of the US population were sold along with 485 B-block licenses covering 99.5% of the population.
122 licenses were not sold and are still held by the FCC. 109 of those licenses never received a bid equal to the Commissionís minimum opening bid amount and 13 licenses are held due to bids withdrawn by participants. The FCC will reauction these licenses at a later time, probably as soon as it figures out how to get more money out of the spectrum. For example, in the larger A-blocks, more than 40% of the markets received either the minimum bid or no bid at all.
The big winner, WNP Communcations, Inc. based in Earlysville, Virginia, won a total of 40 licenses, 30 of which are in the top 50 markets. After spending $187 million in bids they are now the largest corporate owner of spectrum in the United States. They expect their first customers to be business users, but with licenses covering 105 million people a consumer service may not be far behind. Second place winner Nextband Communications LLC spent $142 million for 42 licenses covering 96 million people.
With such large blocks of frequencies, LMDS is expected to provide a variety of one- and two-way wireless services requiring significant bandwidth. Such services may include multi-channel cable television-type video programming, business video teleconferencing, remote medical diagnosis and treatment, wireless local loop voice telephone to business and small offices, and high speed connections to the Internet. LMDS distribution systems are expected to be build out in a cell configuration, with a central transmitting hub sending high speed data to a number of fixed receivers and transceivers. Each hub would interconnect with a central processing center and other hubs. In some areas, depending on the service selections made by license holders, LMDS may become a major competitor to local telephone and cable television companies.
That's all for this month. Comments and questions are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org, and more information is available at www.decode.com. Until next time, happy monitoring!
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