FCC FCC Halts Rural Broadband Service’s Use of Globalstar Radio Spectrum

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LONDON U.S regulators on Sept. 15 ordered mobile satellite services operator Globalstar to stop using its satellite frequencies in ground-based communications mode until the company’s satellite constellation reaches minimum service levels.

The decision will complicate Globalstar’s relationship with Open Range Communications, a rural broadband provider that uses Globalstar’s radio spectrum to provide ground links to its customers.

Under the ruling by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Open Range will have 60 days before it must find alternative means to service its subscribers.

Globalstar, whose current satellite constellation cannot provide FCC-mandated service levels, is set to begin launching its second-generation constellation in the coming weeks. But to meet the FCC requirements, it will need all 24 second-generation spacecraft in service in addition to eight first-generation satellites that were launched more recently than the rest of the constellation.

The full-service, 32-satellite constellation will not be in place until late 2011 under Globalstar’s current schedule, meaning Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Open Range must shut down its service using Globalstar frequencies until then, or find an alternative spectrum.

In a Sept. 15 statement in response to the FCC move, Barbee Ponder, vice president of regulatory affairs for Milpitas, Calif.-based Globalstar, said the company was “disappointed” with the decision and was working to satisfy the FCC requirements as soon as possible. Ponder said the company would work with Open Range “to minimize the impact this decision may have on its customers.”

The decision relates to Globalstar’s use of an unusual advantage the FCC offered the entire mobile satellite services sector. As long as a mobile satellite operator maintains full coverage with its in-orbit fleet, and has spare satellite capacity available, it may use its spectrum to deploy a ground-based communications network.

These Ancillary Terrestrial Components (ATC) will permit reception in areas where satellites cannot reach. While they strongly resemble a classic ground-based broadband wireless network, the FCC allowed mobile satellite operators to use this spectrum on the ground for free, so long as they remained “ancillary” to the satellite network. Without this authorization, the FCC reasoned, the United States may never see a viable mobile satellite services operator capable of delivering emergency services deemed a national priority.

The FCC had granted Globalstar authority to start deploying an ATC network even without a fully functional satellite network, and in 2008 granted the company an initial 16-month extension, to July 2010, of the deadline to put a fully operational satellite network into place.

Globalstar in 2008 had thought its second-generation constellation would be in service by mid-2010. But the financial crisis of 2008 and Globalstar’s deteriorating revenue base slowed the satellites’ development.

Globalstar further argued that the 2009 earthquake at the L’Aquila, Italy, satellite parts plant operated by Globalstar prime contractor Thales Alenia Space had slowed progress. Globalstar said a yearlong delay in the delivery of satellite thrusters also forced a delay in the satellite launches.

Neither of these events was Globalstar’s fault, nor under its control, Globalstar said in asking the FCC for another 16-month extension. Globalstar also argued that Open Range Communications, which has received government grants to deploy its rural broadband service, is performing a national service and should not have its business undermined just because a satellite fleet is late in entering service.

Globalstar competitor Iridium Communications had warned the FCC when it granted Globalstar’s first extension that temporary waivers sometimes morphed into permanent exceptions. The McLean, Va.-based firm issued a press release Sept. 15 praising the FCC’s decision on the Globalstar and Open Range ATC petition.

The FCC said its rules do not permit waivers to regulations just because a company’s business environment degrades in a sagging economy. It said it did not believe the L’Aquila earthquake by itself was responsible for the late delivery of the satellites, nor that the thruster issue played much of a role.

More specifically, the FCC said, allowing Open Range to continue using ATC spectrum leased from Globalstar until the currently scheduled satellite launches would mean Open Range had provided ATC service for “a total period of three years before Globalstar would come into full compliance with the … requirements that were supposed to be met before ATC operations commenced.”