COMNET : Satellite phone firm aims for wider service

Satellite phone service providers are awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would allow them to provide broader coverage to customers and compete in some ways with cellular phones.

Officers with Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV), based in Reston, Virginia, said Tuesday they expect the FCC to rule this week on a proposal the company submitted in early 2001. The proposal would allow MSV and other satellite phone providers to build land-based wireless towers to fill in gaps in satellite coverage, often in urban areas, where the satellite signals are blocked by buildings.

MSV now sells satellite signals wholesale to other providers and offers retail service to public safety workers, truckers, miners and oil company workers in remote areas, but the FCC approval would allow the company to broaden its retail base to those same people in urban areas, said Carson Agnew, president and chief operation officer of MSV, during a press conference at the ComNet Conference and Expo.

The company is not planning to compete head-on with cellular phone carriers, added Lon Levin, MSV vice president and regulatory counsel. “We have no interest in being the seventh (cellular) carrier in New York City,” he said.

In the two years since MSV’s FCC application, there has been a debate between the cellular and satellite phone industries, he added, but indications from the FCC is that the agency “wants us to succeed.”

The company is inspired by XM Satellite Radio, which has built similar land-based “terrestrial” towers to expand its radio service to urban areas, Agnew said.

MSV is seeking similar approval in Canada, but Levin said he’s only aware of efforts in one other country, France, to expand satellite service. “The whole world’s watching,” he said.

If the FCC approves MSV’s proposal, the company would start work immediately on land-based towers. The company could have an experimental service available within a few months, Levin said, but a full-fledged service would take about two years to be ready. “As soon as the (FCC’s) order is out, we’re putting the foot on the gas,” he said.

MSV is also working on reducing the size of the satellite phones, now about as big as a brick, and the cost of the phones and service. A satellite phone now costs about US$1,000, and service costs $50 to $65 a month, compared to cellular phones, most of which cost less than $100. Cellular service often costs less than $30 a month.

MSV was established in 2001 as a joint effort between Motient Corp.’s satellite division and TMI Communications. The privately held company has about 100 employees, and its coverage area includes North America, northern South America, the Caribbean and Hawaii.