Inmarsat’s North American distribution partners have been granted regulatory approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to sell Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service in the United States. But the licenses are not without strings attached.
The FCC granted Special Temporary Authorizations to five Inmarsat resellers, namely Telenor Satellite Services, BT Americas Inc., France Telecom Mobile Satellite Communications, Stratos Global and MVS USA Inc., for the operation of BGAN.
BGAN allows users equipped with laptop-size satellite terminals to send data at speeds of nearly half a megabit per second. It currently has strong appeal for military and emergency-response users and is being offered throughout the Americas and surrounding regions using Inmarsat’s recently-launched I-4 satellite.
The FCC debated the applications for months after Inmarsat’s competitor Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) Inc. of Reston, Va., opposed granting of the licenses. MSV contended that the BGAN service had the potential to interfere with MSV’s own communications. MSV was seeking an entire overhaul of the L-band spectrum allocations, which have not been renegotiated since 1996. The company also contended that Inmarsat was using some spectrum loaned to it by MSV, which MSV did not want used for BGAN.
The FCC decision reflects some of MSV’s concerns. The licenses are only good for a period of 60 days, and the borrowed spectrum in contention is restricted from the authority. The licensing grant is also dependent on BGAN not causing interference with other communications. In addition, under the terms of the temporary licenses, Inmarsat’s partners are considered “unprotected” and must accept interference from other legally operating satellites.
Jennifer Manner, MSV’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said the company is still working with Inmarsat to try to work out a solution about L-band re-allocation.
“The order stands on its face, and we remain committed to coordinating our satellites so there is no interference, and to increasing spectrum and re-banding, and we’re trying to work with Inmarsat to get there,” Manner said.
Inmarsat is not concerned about the temporary nature of the license, according to Diane Cornell, vice president for regulatory affairs at Inmarsat, who said the licensing can be renewed or rolled over after the time is up. The company’s resellers are gearing up to sell the service and some already have customers. “Basically, the service is available now,” Cornell said.
The company is still awaiting regulatory approval in Canada.
Telenor Satellite Services of Rockville, Md., is one of those now actively selling service in the United States , according to Telenor spokesman Tom Surface. The company is informing customers of the temporary nature of the licensing, but Surface said he believes that as the 60 days draws to a close, the extension grant will be virtually a formality. “Realistically, I don’t know of any time in the recent past that a temporary license was ever revoked, refused or not renewed,” Surface said.
But Scott Blake Harris, a Washington attorney with Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP and former FCC official who has previously represented MSV in other cases, said the restrictions send a message.
“What I think the commission has done here is issued a very balanced order,” Harris said. “It’s said to Inmarsat, ‘You can begin to offer this service in the country.’ However, it’s a clear warning to Inmarsat that one, it needs to resolve the loaned spectrum issue quickly, and two, it needs to resolve its coordination with MSV. If it doesn’t, it cannot take for granted its continued right to offer this service.”
Telenor already is seeing interest from a variety of customers, from emergency-response workers gearing up for hurricane season to media affiliates that travel to remote locations.
“Prior to this, we had a flurry of people that were basically chomping at the bit to start using it and buying it in the U.S.,” said Surface, noting that organizations such as National Public Radio have inquired about it during the first week of availability.