Launching satellites into deep space may be the answer for ubiquitous mobile communications in the 21st century, eliminating all geographical boundaries and cellular 'black holes'.
By 2000, when there will be more than 350 million cellular users worldwide, cellular networks will still cover only about 20 per cent of the earth's surface, wrote Fredrik Verkroost, chief commercial officer at ICO Global Communications, in his article "Satellite Communications and Global Mobility".
In India, only 27 per cent of the population will have coverage by 2000, leaving 700 million people living in areas without cellular communication, Verkroost noted.
"Mobile satellite systems (MSS) have the potential to fill these holes, and to cover other vast land masses, such as Russia, Africa and China, where population density in rural areas does not justify building cellular networks," he said.
Depending on the choice of orbit, MSS involve the launching of three to 70 satellites into space to cover the earth fully, he explained.
ICO has chosen medium-earth orbit (MEO) for its satellites, which require 10 satellites, while the company's key competitors, Iridium and Globalstar, have chosen low-earth orbit (LEO) and have or will launch 66 and 48 satellites into space respectively, said Michael Rugala, regional general manager, ICO Asia-Pacific.
Using fewer satellites reduces the potential of dropcalls, and since ICO controls its satellites from earth stations, the cost of maintenance is greatly reduced, Rugala said. The company is investing $US4.8 billion into building its infrastructure.
More than half of ICO's $2.5 billion equity comes from investors in Asia, some of whom sit on the board, Rugala said, adding that the former chairman of the board came from Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel).
Cost will be a key sales driver of mobile satellite communication, Rugala said. "It has got to be simple, easy to get and reasonably priced," he said. ICO will be pitching its satellite service to vertical markets such as maritime workers and business travellers, particularly those who travel often to third world or developing countries.
"Satellite telecommunications technology in general, is going to have a huge role in Asia-Pacific," said Gigi Wang, senior vice president of communication industry research at IDC.
It will give a big boost to manufacturers of third generation mobile phones because they can then offer handsets that provide two-way interactive (between satellite and cellular technologies) communication, said Sean Kaldor, vice president, developing markets and technologies at IDC.
ICO has roped in Mitsubishi Electric, Samsung Electronics, Panasonic Personal Computer, and NEC as manufacturers for its handheld user terminals. Its latest protocol model by Mitsubishi, the MS702X, weighs 250g, measures 17cm in length (with antenna), 4cm in width, and 3.1cm in thickness. Estimated to cost around $US700, the phone features 80 hours stand-by time and 66 minutes talk time.
The dual-mode mobile phone also means it is able to operate using either satellite or GSM technology so the user gets coverage from virtually anywhere on earth, Rugala said. Since the latter will always be the cheaper alternative, the phone automatically switches to GSM (global system for mobile communications) mode when both are available, he added.
At last estimate, Verkroost puts the cost of making a call via mobile satellite technology at $9 per minute. This figure is poised to fall further by the time ICO launches its service in August next year, Rugala said.
"But in order for the handsets to reach the satellites, you will need more power, that means more battery and that results in a higher cost," noted Kay Das, director of R&D programs at SGS-Thomson Microelectronics.
SGS and the Centre for Wireless Communications recently signed an agreement to undertake a joint research and development project aimed at developing third-generation Wideband-CDMA (code division multiple access) mobile terminal prototypes.
But ICO is seeking to complement, not compete against CNOs (cellular network operators), Rugala stressed. "We're not asking the user to utilise this technology 50 per cent of the time. That's not what our model is based on."
Verkroost added that mobile satellite systems will only need to attract about 2 to 3 per cent of the expected 350 million cellular users in order to be financially viable.
"It's a new value-added service, and over time, it's going to give CNOs the ability to provide their customers ubiquitous mobile coverage," Rugala said. "ICO is looking to sign up roaming agreements with CNOs in each country to see how we can complement their portfolios of products. So CNOs such as MobileOne (M1) or SingTel, will be able to sell GSM phones which will be satellite-enabled."
ICO already has roaming agreements with service partners M1 and SingTel, and its target for this year is to expand its distribution network, ensuring that its alliances are focused on providing customer billing and service functions, he said. ICO's other partners in the region include Australia's Telstra, Telekom Malaysia, and South Korea's Korea Telecom International.