by David Zufall
Senior Vice President, Network Technology
Americans love movies, like that Judy Garland classic of hopes and expectations in an exciting new era. The MSS industry is evolving in much the same way, and is on the cusp of delivering groundbreaking mobility services to meet Americans’ love for mobility and connectivity. The cornerstone of these next-generation systems just happens to be a prime piece of ‘real estate’ in the orbital band: 92.85 degrees West longitude, covering the U.S. from the equator, just over St. Louis, Missouri.
Just a few weeks ago, the final milestone in a process to usher in that new era of MSS was achieved when ICO’s G1 (launched April 14) was declared operational. Trials for MSS services are now set to begin, the culmination of years of research, collaboration and technology development.
To get to St. Louis, MSS operators have navigated a maze of technology choices, regulatory frameworks and a challenged business climate. Considering the required investment and competitive landscape, the primary question during this process has been to determine what suite of products, and or services, can tap the demand for mobility services ideally suited to satellite in a successful business model? Was the answer voice and data services? Broadband? Mobile Video?
The research and discovery process was driven by an understanding of the ideal attributes – and today’s drawbacks – of satellite services. The terrestrial wireless business has always operated on two fundamental principles: coverage and capacity. The key to widespread adoption of MSS is no different. Satellites are ideal at overcoming the limits of terrestrial networks, in terms of delivering a signal to as broad an area as possible (coverage). Yet traditional terrestrial cellular operators are able to maximize spectral efficiency to meet the insatiable market demand for mobility services (capacity).
The technology development process has, ultimately, led to two key decisions: select an agnostic platform that could provide the needed flexibility to ensure whichever business plan had the greatest likelihood of success,; and pursue an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) to meet those two fundamental principles of coverage and capacity. Add to these the development of satellite reflectors large enough to accommodate two-way interactivity, to devices with more widely accepted product form factors that could be freed from requirements for bulky antennas. From this vantage point MSS is well-positioned to build on the success of today’s direct-to-home multichannel video market and satellite radio offerings.
As the technology approach began to unfold, in parallel time was the development of one of the most innovative satellites to be commercially deployed — ICO G1. Built on the Loral 1300 platform, G1 is the key enabler that provides the flexibility needed to maximize the use of radio spectrum and deliver on the potential for widely accepted MSS-based offerings.
In addition to G1’s reflector enabling a new generation of mobility products, G1 is also the first satellite to use ground-based beam forming (GBBF) in both the transmit and receive modes. GBBF allows the simultaneous creation of from 1 to 250 spot beams over the United States without making any changes to the satellite. Together, G1 and the GBBF form provide an extremely flexible “bent pipe” system that can support virtually any communications’ signal. When combined with a terrestrial component via ATC, the system laid the groundwork for offering a differentiated set of capabilities and services with widespread growth potential.
The system’s ability to support any number of standards-based technologies, ranging from GMR (Geo Mobile Radio), GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) or WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), to the emerging worldwide standard of DVB-SH (Digital Video Broadcasting - Satellite services to Handhelds) for mobile video, not only minimizes the risks inherent with proprietary technologies, it also delivers economies of scale that can be achieved through standards-based technology deployments.
In the case of ICO, our investment in the foundation of ICO G1, GBBF and perfecting our spectrum holdings for ATC has allowed us to now concentrate on developing a standards-based suite of services.
Our MSS offering, ICO mim™ (mobile interactive media) will include a combination of mobile video (live TV delivered over 8-15 channels with a broad mix of programming choices), interactive navigation and an emergency communications’ capability. The service will be delivered through a combination of automotive-based and portable devices. Unlike current mobile television options, the product is focusing on larger screens more suited to a better mobile video experience, which will drive greater consumer adoption.
We believe MSS enhances what is in the market today with a differentiated and improved product set that takes advantage of widespread consumer demand for enhanced mobile services. In addition, it delivers on the promise of ubiquitous service that only the combination of an MSS network and nationwide radio spectrum allow. ICO is able to leverage the flexibility of the satellite and GBBF to support these services. This is accomplished through simultaneous use of a broadcast oriented standard, DVB-SH for mobile video and the industry proven 2-way standard, GMR, to deliver the interactive element.
Alpha trials for the service are scheduled to begin this summer in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Demonstrations this year in Las Vegas using terrestrial spectrum have already realized important results and shown the quality of satellite-based mobile services. Initial commercial prototypes are on track for delivery by the end of this year, with a commercial service launch slated for late 2009.
A growing standards-based ecosystem worldwide has emerged to support the DVB-SH and GMR standards. They are joined by dozens of leading names in technology, service providers, automotive companies and consumer electronics’ manufacturers creating the momentum for full-scale commercial offerings.
In sum, MSS has come a long way from having a great deal of promise, to having real market potential. The first operational system in the U.S. using MSS spectrum, combined with worldwide MSS deployments, marks a bright future for next-generation services that have widespread consumer and business appeal.
With such a wide variety of technology options and service offerings worldwide, the lyrics of the title song of that old classic musical seem to sum up best the excitement building for a next-generation of MSS services. Especially when it comes to America’s love of all things mobile and all things video, or as the old song goes: “Meet me in St. Louis, we’ll see you at the fair.”
About the author
Mr. Zufall has been Senior Vice President, Network Systems since January 2, 2006. During the 12 years prior to joining the Company, Mr. Zufall served in a number of technical and operational capacities at Nextel Communications, Inc., including Vice President, Infrastructure Technology Development, and Vice President, Network Architecture/Chief Architect. Nextel operated a nationwide digital cellular network in the United States. Mr. Zufall had responsibility for working with partners in Nextel’s strategy and marketing divisions to establish Nextel’s long-term network and technology roadmap. Mr. Zufall holds a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Electrical Engineering and an M.B.A. in Finance and International Business, both from Columbia University.