FCC approves satellite mobile phone services

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted spectrum licenses to eight satellite companies to provide mobile satellite telecommunication services, the government body announced Tuesday. The decision throws a lifeline to satellite companies looking to provide high-speed Internet connections and other services, but at the expense of cellular phone providers which were looking to use this spectrum to offer their own next-generation services.

The licenses for 70MHz of the 2GHz band of spectrum went to The Boeing Co.; Celsat America Inc.; Constellation Communications Holdings Inc.; Globalstar LP; ICO Services Ltd.; Iridium LLC; Mobile Communications Holding Inc.; and the TMI Communications and Co. LP.

The decision, nearly a decade in the making, was too long coming, said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in an accompanying statement to the FCC's notice. He hopes that granting the licenses will allow the market to reward -- or punish -- satellite services on their merits.

Satellite companies plan to offer voice and data services like Internet connections using a home receiver or mobile phone service with global coverage. Satellite companies have run into trouble in the past trying to offer these services -- Iridium's predecessor went bankrupt because its phones were considered clunky and the service too expensive, and Globalstar said in June that it might need to file for bankruptcy protection.

The industry group for terrestrial mobile phone carriers, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), opposed the spectrum grant, hoping to secure the wavelengths for 3G (third-generation) wireless services.

Elements of the 2GHz spectrum are used in Europe for 3G services, making the band attractive for U.S. carriers. Although higher frequencies allow more data to be carried, the 2GHz spectrum travels over distance better, and will pass through buildings.

With the high-profile failures of Globalstar and Iridium, the question for one analyst is whether spectrum was ever the problem.

"Frequencies in this band operate very well in terrestrial bands. It's a low frequency range. Allocation of these bands ... could be seen in the light of the failures of Iridium and Globalstar to be giving away valuable property to companies with an unproven business model," said Mike Massey, an analyst with Pioneer Consulting LLC in Boston.

The CTIA hopes the FCC will revisit the spectrum grants, if any of the companies fail to meet service rollout milestones set by the commission as a condition of the licenses, said CTIA president and chief executive officer Tom Wheeler, in a statement.

More information on the FCC is available at www.fcc.gov/.

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