PARIS — ICO Global has reactivated a satellite access facility in Germany and has begun testing its medium-Earth-orbit satellite — which has been largely idle since launch in 2001 — in a bid to secure an operating license in Europe for the company’s long-promised global two-way communications satellite constellation, according to ICO officials.
Reston, Va.-based ICO also has decided to move 10 similar satellites in various stages of construction at Boeing Satellite Systems International to a less-expensive storage facility as it weighs its options for launching the constellation.
“Global is alive,” ICO Senior Vice President Donna Alderman said May 2 during an ICO investor conference, referring to the company’s original idea of a 12-satellite constellation to provide two-way, high-speed communications to a global audience.
Alderman said ICO has contracted with satellite-terminal manufacturer ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., to provide equipment for a campaign of tests on the ICO F2 satellite from a satellite access facility in Usingen, Germany. This facility is one of about a dozen built around the world that were intended to link with the ICO satellite constellation.
While the ICO F2 satellite has not been operated as part of a constellation, the satellite, which orbits from 10,000 kilometers in altitude with a 45 degree inclination relative to the equator, has been generating limited revenues from sales to the U.S. government.
Passing through different owners and different business models since the mid- 1990s, ICO has spent more than $4 billion on its constellation. Its first satellite failed at launch in 2000. The second was successfully orbited in 2001.
Work on the rest of the satellites was eventually stopped at Boeing following ICO’s financial difficulties and Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The company has since emerged with a new business plan using one or two satellites in geostationary orbit over North America.
ICO’s worldwide ambitions, and its efforts to persuade European regulators that its one orbiting satellite should be sufficient to enable ICO to receive operating licenses, have waxed and waned and now have returned to active status, Alderman said.
“The ICO F2 is one of 12 medium-Earth-orbit satellites we plan,” Alderman said. “The satellite is circling the Earth; it works; it’s in operation, and we are testing it right now. We are the only S-band system to make this kind of progress so far. The ITU [the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate that regulates satellite frequencies] has recognized us as an operational system.”
Six medium-orbit ICO satellites were all but completed by Boeing before work stopped. The components for four others have been built, but the satellites themselves have not been assembled. In 2004, ICO sued Boeing for breach of contract in a dispute that is set for trial in September in a California court.
Bob Day, ICO senior vice president for space segment, said the company will be moving this hardware out of the Boeing facilities to a less-expensive location in El Segundo, Calif.
Day said ICO has begun reviewing launch options for these spacecraft, perhaps by placing several satellites on a single vehicle.
The 12-satellite version of ICO’s system architecture is registered in Britain, by that nation’s Office of Telecommunications, known as Ofcom.
Some European regulators have resisted ICO’s attempts to secure licenses, saying the constellation the company originally designed has never been launched and that ICO has forfeited its right to a license. Alderman said the recent tests of two-way voice and Internet transmissions should disprove that idea.
“We’ve had lots of criticism that the satellite is old and could not be used,” Alderman said. “The moral of the story is that the trials we are conducting validate the functionality of the service. More importantly, we are using the spectrum. ICO’s medium-Earth-orbit system is the only satellite network designed to cover the entire world. It is hugely expensive, and it is largely built.”
European telecommunications regulatory authority is dispersed, with some authorizations coming from pan-European organizations including the European Commission, and others considered the preserve of Europe’s national governments.
Alderman said the European Commission is expected to issue rulings on licenses in early 2009.