LightSquared's mobile hopes to rise with satellite

The path to a promised affordable mobile service that will span the farthest reaches of North America begins late Sunday night on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

That's when SkyTerra-1, one of the largest communications satellites ever built, will be launched into space on a Russian Proton Breeze M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. If the launch is successful, the satellite will achieve orbit 22,000 miles above Earth and start receiving radio commands after about nine hours.

The craft is one of two that will provide the satellite portion of a mobile service coming in the second half of next year from startup LightSquared. The service, which will be sold wholesale to other carriers that can offer it to consumers, will combine satellite voice and data coverage with a fast LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network in select areas. Users will be able to use one device and switch from one network to the other depending on their location.

Satellite-based mobile services have had limited success in the mainstream market, thanks in part to large and expensive devices and fairly expensive rates. LightSquared says it has advantages that will interest more users. For one thing, devices that will carry both its satellite and its LTE services will be about the same size as other smartphones, with no external antenna. Size and cost will be driven down by the introduction of a single chip from Qualcomm, due on the market next year, that's equipped to connect with satellite and a broad range of other mobile networks.

But SkyTerra-1, and a twin that will be launched later as a backup, is also a key asset, according to LightSquared spokesman Tom Surface.

"It's got much more power, much more capacity and capability than satellites that have been launched up to this point," Surface said.

The satellite's reflector -- the dish antenna that will send and receive signals from users on Earth -- is among the biggest ever at 22 meters (72 feet) across. The six-ton craft, about the size of a small school bus, has 11,900 watts of power for those transmissions, compared with 9,000 watts for Inmarsat, a current-generation communications satellite, Surface said.

SkyTerra-1 also has the edge in terms of "spot beams," which can be moved around to cover different parts of a region. These can be used to quickly boost communications capacity in a given area, such as the site of a natural disaster, Surface said. SkyTerra-1 can have more than 500 spot beams working at the same time, compared with 200 for Inmarsat, the next most powerful communications satellite, he said.

Once it reaches orbit, the satellite will follow the Earth as it revolves, remaining in its designated spot at 101.3 degrees West longitude. It will provide coverage across Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico as well as the continental masses of the three North American nations. According to the terms of its spectrum licenses, LightSquared is required to reach 92 percent of the U.S. population by the end of 2014. The satellite will link back to the Internet via four ground stations, arrays of dishes located near Ottawa and Saskatoon in Canada and near Dallas and Napa, California.

To communicate with the satellite, users will have to have an unobstructed view of the part of the sky where SkyTerra-1 is in orbit. But they won't have to point their phones at the satellite, Surface said.

The satellite service should be able to deliver speeds of about 300K bps (bits per second) to 400K bps, enough for basic e-mail and for voice service, which will use VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), Surface said.

That's a far cry from LTE, which Verizon Wireless says it has demonstrated at 8M bps to 12M bps to individual subscribers. But it should be faster than most existing satellite-based services. For example, a mobile data service still offered by SkyTerra, which Harbinger acquired earlier this year, runs at about 2.4K bps.

SkyTerra charges $69 per month and up for that legacy service, which is mostly used for voice and for vehicle tracking, Surface said. With the new network, LightSquared will charge carriers on a per-bit basis, and the carriers will set the price for consumers.

However, LightSquared is taking on formidable costs in building its network. Including construction, launch, insurance and the building of four ground stations for data backhaul from the satellite, SkyTerra-1 will cost about $1.1 billion before it's operational, Surface said.

One planned launch date for the new satellite was already scrapped. It was set to go up in mid-August, but contamination was discovered in some of the wheels that would be used to adjust parts of the craft. The problem, which also affected launches of some other satellites from builder Boeing, has since been corrected, Surface said. By conservative estimates, SkyTerra-1 should operate for at least 15 years, he said.

The launch is set to take place at 11:29 p.m. Sunday local time in Kazakhstan, which will be 12:29 p.m. Sunday afternoon on the U.S. East Coast, Surface said. International Launch Services, the company putting SkyTerra-1 in orbit, will host a live webcast starting 30 minutes before the launch and ending 30 minutes after.

Once the satellite reaches its destination and opens up its reflector, it will effectively become a super cell tower, Surface said. "We've taken the antenna and put it in the sky."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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