Demonstration Moves ICO Mobile Service Forward

[Satellite News – 1-16-08] ICO Global Communications Ltd. debuted its new digital video broadcasting-satellite services to handhelds (DVB-SH) service at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Alcatel-Lucent is providing the system architecture, design and installation for the mobile interactive media (mim) service, which will provide television, GPS navigation and emergency service to mobile devices via a Ku-band satellite which is scheduled to be placed in orbit in March.
    During the show, ICO demonstrated mim using a sport utility vehicle that traveled around town as well as in an exhibition suite at a hotel. “The people basically saw MSNBC live coming over a Ku-band satellite and transmitted by the terrestrial tower that we had leased,” ICO CEO Tim Bryan said. “They were seeing live TV on screens that were embedded in the cars, in the headrests, in the kinds of DVD screens that you’d see coming down from the ceiling. So they saw all of that live and in really high quality on big screens.”
    Bryan spoke with Satellite News about the demonstration went and the next steps for multimedia service.

Satellite News: Was the demonstration a success?

Bryan: We were really happy with it. The picture quality was really good, the DVB-SH technology worked pretty much as advertised   or maybe even better as advertised. It was the first DVB-SH anywhere in North America. The coverage ended up being great. We were very pleased with the very beginning of our navigation system and our customer interface, so all those things went really well.

Satellite News: Were there any surprises the you found during the demonstration?

Bryan: We had a more conservative estimate of video quality, coverage and propagation, particularly inside buildings and parking garages. I would say in pretty much every instance we were surprised that we did as well as we did and we exceeded expectations. The only thing that came out that could be construed negative was that the in-car analog screen and analog inputs really didn’t display the signal as well as a quality screen.

Satellite News: What is the next step?

Bryan: We’ve got two or three really very important milestones coming up. The biggest milestone is that we have the launch of our first geostationary satellite over North America in March. That overshadows most of our other goals for the next three-to-six months. Another critical piece is that we’ve applied for the right to use our frequency both to and from the satellite as well as terrestrially. So we’ve applied for an ATC (ancillary terrestrial component) [license]. We’d like to make continued progress at getting ATC granted by the [U.S. Federal Communications Commission]. The third milestone is once the satellite is launched and operational, we plan to undertake an alpha trial. We’ll do similar things to Las Vegas but have all the channels as opposed to just one, and we’re doing it in two cities: Las Vegas and in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina.

Satellite News: What is the timeline for deploying the service?

Bryan: We’re likely to offer services in early 2009. We have done considerable planning around that. Of course, the great differentiating feature of ICO is that when the satellite goes up and we’re ready to launch service, it’s available nationwide from day one. It’s not as if you have to build in every single city to get service up, so we’ll be able to offer nationwide service from the very get go. It’s just that we’ll be developing a terrestrial network in the big cities to augment the service as we go through time.  We haven’t really publicly commented on our exact rollout plan, but it’s fair to say certainly in bigger cities your major marketing thrust will occur after you build some terrestrial network in those places. In some cities it takes a lot less time to build terrestrial network; in other cities it takes a bit longer, so it’ll likely be staged in a way that matches the construction of the terrestrial network.

Satellite News: Many video services are available via 3G technology, where is niche for ICO in the mobile video market?

Bryan: I think ICO as a company has a couple different niches. Obviously this mim product creates a niche. I would hasten to add that ICO’s one of few companies that has the ability to use spectrum both to and from a powerful satellite as well as terrestrial, which creates a little niche for ourselves in the wireless space that makes us a little different.
Within mobile video, we thinking to ourselves that we’re first, better and different. [We’re] first because we’re going to be the first [mobile satellite service] to launch coverage. [We’re] better because the video quality is much better. It’s displayed on higher screen sizes, and it just really enables a really high-quality video viewing experience as opposed to the experience a person gets looking at a very small handheld or cell phone. In addition to delivering it to larger screens, we’re different because our satellite is fully interactive. We can add interactivity to all our features, where most other services are one way only. So I would say that creates a niche for us that others are going to have a very hard time filling.

Satellite News: Where does ICO fit into the wireless landscape?

Bryan: I think ICO has a rather unique position. We have 20 megahertz of nationwide spectrum, which is spectrum that is every bit as valuable to other kinds of mobility spectrum. Then you add to that the fact that within a couple months we’re going to have a functioning two-way interactive satellite and the ability to use all that spectrum to and from the satellite as well. We think we can either on our own or potentially with partners create a set of services that wireless competitors can’t offer today such as dual-mode cell phones to be able to offer connectivity to satellite when you’re out of cell service. We think we have a lot of opportunities in front of us, but we’ve chosen to focus on mim.

Satellite News: What are your goals for the first year of service?

Bryan: I would say the best thing you can do in your first year of service is deliver a high-quality product. You only have one chance to make a first impression. I just think it’s much more critical to get the user interface right and try and deliver the services that people want. If you whiff on those two your plan isn’t going to develop the way you want it to. We’re really counting on the alpha trials and really counting on a lot of the work we’re doing internally to get the product right. If there’s one thing our chairman, [Craig McCaw], is known for it’s his relentless focus on the consumer experience, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on.

Satellite News: What is your target market?

Bryan: I think particularly mobile families. This service is great for kids in the backseat and great for anybody involved with RVs or trucking. Obviously it’s a particularly good service for limos, taxis and shuttles. When you get into the portable devices it really starts applying to wireless consumers-  people who want to be able to take their information and have it where they are. The market for video generally is very robust and has proven to be very resilient and in high demand. All we want to do is to take what we know is a thriving market for a product that people want and give it to them on a mobile basis.

Satellite News: What is your business model?

Bryan: We have indicated that ICO mim is likely to be a subscription service, sort of a monthly subscription along the lines of XM or Sirius. ICO mim would offer satellite video as well as interactive navigation and roadside assistance on an interactive basis. At this point it’s really meant to be a single tier of service.
Our view is what we’re developing for the alpha trial is not a specific mim device but a modem which will run all the other devices you have. At least initially we’ll make a modem that will power a lot of other devices and decode the signals. Eventually we believe that the technology will end up in the device rather than in the modem.

Satellite News: What role do you see satellites and satellite technology playing in the mobile market?

Bryan: I think one of the services ICO can do on behalf of the satellite industry since we’re going to be the first to be launched and the first to operate is to focus people on the benefits that satellites bring to wireless services. Satellites are really good at coverage. They’re really good at providing a lot of services to a wide variety of people. Where satellites are only fair is interactivity. So the real trick is to take what satellites are good for and demonstrate those qualities to the wireless industry and that’s what we’re planning on doing.
    A lot of people are probably going to build Las Vegas and a lot of people are going to build Los Angeles, but there’s very few people who can cover the drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. That’s one terrific benefit to the satellite; it covers all the bits in between as well as the urban areas.

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