Last week, the FCC awarded ICO its ATC license, with no requirement to enter into a ground spare contract at this stage. Indeed ICO will only have to demonstrate 30 days before commencing ATC service that “firm arrangements are in place to meet the spare satellite requirement” within 1 year of service initiation. Of course, since a satellite would normally take around 2 years to construct, ICO would have to enter into a ground spare contract well before that 30 day notice period. However, ICO has gained considerably more flexibility to keep its expenditures to a minimum, while pursuing resolution of its litigation with Boeing and waiting for a more favorable economic climate in which to launch commercial service.
With this ruling, along with Globalstar’s ATC license grant last year, the FCC has shown a desire to be flexible in its interpretation of the ATC rules, so as to ensure that ATC deployments do eventually take place. Arguably, this flexibility has advantaged operators such as ICO and Globalstar, over TerreStar and Skyterra (formerly MSV), who have committed to considerably greater capital expenditure, based at least to some degree on a more cautious interpretation of the ATC requirements. Most notably, TerreStar is already well advanced with construction of its ground spare satellite, although we have heard rumors that work may have paused in anticipation of the ICO ruling, and (unless TerreStar gains a European license in the near future and decides to use the satellite there) we expect that construction will soon be formally suspended to save money, on the assumption that this will not impact TerreStar’s pending ATC application.
A future question for the FCC with regard to ATC “flexibility” may well relate to what level of satellite performance is needed to justify that an ATC service is truly “ancillary”. TerreStar and Skyterra have built very large and powerful (and expensive) satellites, in order to deliver voice and data connectivity to “standard” mobile devices without external antennas. ICO and Globalstar’s satellites are rather less capable (and cheaper), but if they are not required to deliver fully reliable handheld satellite voice services, then these satellites could also operate with “standard” mobile devices. For example, if the only test required is to complete a call from a handset on a tripod in an open field, with no head blockage or obstruction from trees etc, then a far less expensive satellite is required than if link margin is needed to overcome these obstructions and the call is made or received by a real person walking around with the phone.
Given that many hundreds of millions of dollars of satellite construction costs are at stake, it will be very interesting to see how the FCC ultimately decides this issue and therefore who has made the right call with their satellite design.