ICO Global Reinvents Itself With Ground-Based Repeater Plan

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Cellular pioneer Craig O. McCaw’s ICO Global mobile-satellite communications venture hopes to resurrect itself as a one-satellite company providing mobile voice and data services to U.S. customers with the help of a network of ground-based repeaters.

ICO is one of at least four companies that have announced intentions to operate satellites linked to hundreds of ground-based signal boosters — called ancillary terrestrial components — to offer voice and data communications in North America in either the L-band or the 2-gigahertz swath of the radio spectrum.

The Kirkland, Wash., company has gone through bankruptcy and spent $4 billion of its investors’ cash — including $1.2 billion since 2001 — designing a global system employing up to 15 large Boeing-built satellites in medium-Earth orbit.

ICO has now abandoned that design, split with Boeing and sued the El Segundo, Calif.-based satellite manufacturer for up to $2 billion in California’s Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging that Boeing has refused to pursue work on the constellation.

Boeing Satellite Systems has filed a counterclaim, saying ICO unilaterally terminated its contract, leaving six mostly completed satellites on Boeing’s factory floor. Four others are in initial stages of construction.

Facing a U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deadline, ICO has asked the U.S. regulator to approve a revamped system design that employs a single large Space Systems/Loral-built satellite to be placed in geostationary orbit by July 2007.

Loral spokesman John McCarthy referred questions on the satellite’s schedule to ICO but said the contract for a large satellite, featuring a 12-meter-diameter unfurlable S-band antenna, has been signed.

Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., is under contract with TerreStar Networks Inc. of McLean, Va., to build a nearly identical system for a similar business plan.

ICO Executive Vice President David Bagley on May 5 said the company would have no comment on its Loral contract or on the dispute with Boeing.

Boeing itself received FCC authorization to modify an earlier design for a mobile satellite services system to a single satellite operating in the 2-gigahertz portion of the radio spectrum. But Boeing has since decided not to pursue its mobile satellite services plans and has returned its license to the FCC, Boeing spokeswoman Marta E. Newhart said May 6.

Inmarsat Ltd. of London, whose first fourth-generation satellite was launched March 11 and completed in-orbit testing May 3, is expected to enter the same market as TerreStar and ICO, but in the L-band. Like ICO and TerreStar, Inmarsat is counting on ground-based signal boosters to make its satellite signal available in urban canyons and inside buildings.

Telesat Canada of Ottawa also has announced plans to join with Mobile Satellite Ventures of Reston, Va., to launch an L-band mobile satellite services system serving North America.

Telesat Canada President Larry Boisvert said Telesat prefers to invest in an L-band rather than a 2-gigahertz system, in part because the FCC has approved ground-based signal boosters for L-band systems.

Companies planning 2-gigahertz systems, such as ICO and TerreStar, must first build and launch a satellite before seeking a license for the ground repeaters.

ICO told the FCC in January that it would begin construction of its Loral-built satellite even before receiving formal approval of the system-design change to assure a launch by July 2007.

The company said physical construction of the satellite should start in July and end in May 2007, in time for shipment and launch by July 17. The company proposes to place the satellite in geostationary orbit at a British-registered orbital slot at 91 degrees west longitude.

PanAmSat Corp. of Wilton, Conn., and Telesat Canada both have spacecraft operating within 0.1 degrees of that position. These satellites are using different broadcast frequencies, but ICO nonetheless will need to coordinate its satellite’s arrival in orbit with both operators to avoid an in-orbit collision.