The Case for Hybrid Satellite/Terrestrial Services

By | April 1, 2009 | Telecom, Via Satellite

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently has shown some flexibility in allowing a combination of satellite and terrestrial services to be offered on the same allocated bandwidth.

During the 2008 fourth quarter, the FCC granted a petition by Globalstar LLC, to use the WiMax protocol as an ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) to its mobile satellite services (MSS) network. MSS operators can provide service in remote areas, rural areas and non-coastal marine regions; however, MSS is susceptible to blocking by structural attenuation, particularly in the urban areas. Therefore, adding an ATC is a good way to offer a supplementary service for these weak coverage spots.

In 2003, the FCC first allowed MSS providers to modify their licenses to incorporate ATC services. The intent was to enhance the ability of MSS operators to offer affordable, high-quality mobile services on land, in the air and over the oceans using existing spectrum allocated in the MSS bands — namely the 2 GHz band, the L-band and the Big LEO band. Nevertheless, the FCC emphasized that the terrestrial component should remain ancillary and it should not become a stand-alone service. In other words, MSS operators should not offer ATC-only subscriptions.

Conditions for ATC Entry (Gating Criteria)

The FCC stated that any MSS operator seeking to modify its existing license to incorporate ATC into its systems must comply with certain requirements; what it called gating criteria. These criteria specify that qualifying MSS operators must:

  • Own and operate their own satellites: MSS operators are required to own their own satellites as well as maintain spare on-orbit satellites so that destroyed or degraded satellites can be replaced expeditiously.
  • Provide substantial satellite service to the public: To be eligible for ATC, MSS operators are required to provide continuous satellite service over the entire geographic area of satellite coverage. ATC service must be limited to only MSS authorized footprints.
  • Provide integrated MSS/ATC service: MSS operators must provide an integrated MSS/ATC service with the MSS component always being the primary part. Furthermore, a stand-alone ATC product is not allowed.
  • Use dual-mode handsets: MSS/ATC operators must use dual-mode handsets or handsets that can receive calls via both satellite and terrestrial radio links. When sold to the consumer, the dual-mode handset must contain all the hardware and software necessary for MSS and ATC operations. An MSS handset with an attached ATC kit does not qualify for the dual-mode requirement.

A Waiver of the Gating Criteria

While some MSS operators have modified their MSS licenses to offer ATC services; for some operators, meeting the gating criteria requirements has been a barrier to entry into the ATC market. Interestingly, in the recent order, the FCC decided to temporarily waive part of the gating criteria for Globalstar so the company could take advantage of a multimillion dollar loan commitment to deploy MSS/ATC services in rural areas.

The integration of MSS and ATC is a great idea from the bandwidth efficiency and commercial standpoint, particularly in certain underserved rural markets. It may take some time for technology to mature, particularly the dual-mode handsets, but the potential benefits are undeniable.

One must remember the FCC’s intent in all this, which is to increase utilization of existing MSS spectrum, eliminate inefficiencies and enhance operational ability in MSS systems. In addition, the FCC has gone to great lengths to emphasize that the ancillary ATC must remain ancillary or as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps put it, "When it comes to ATC, the tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog."

Raul Magallanes runs a Houston-based law firm focusing on telecommunications law. He may be reached at +1 (281) 317-1397 or by email at raul@rmtelecomlaw.com.

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