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National LTE network in satellite spectrum mooted

06 апреля 2010

One of the soft targets in FCC chief Julius Genachowski’s plan to open up more wireless spectrum is the 100MHz or so of mobile satellite bandwidth. Now the most ambitious power broker in the sector, private equity firm Harbinger Capital, aims to seize the helm of that process, and create a national US LTE network for wholesale use, most of it to be built by the end of 2013.

Harbinger has spent the past couple of years increasing its holdings in mobile satellite operators, as these companies emerge from their emergency response niches to offer more mainstream hybrid satellite/terrestrial services. The ability to do this has improved the economics of mobile satellite and made firms like TerreStar attractive as partners for cellcos, including AT&T - because of their rural reach and their large quantities of spectrum. Now Harbinger is looking to build on its influence over all three main US mobile/terrestrial satellite specialists to look beyond ad hoc cellco deals, to creating an alternative power base, and a network that could be shared with existing or new operators.

Although a bid for UK-based Inmarsat failed in 2008, Harbinger took full control of SkyTerra last fall, and is also a major shareholder in TerreStar and owns about 29% of  Inmarsat. SkyTerra also controls MSV (these two firms and TerreStar were awarded new licenses in 2GHz, specifically for hybrid services, in 2003 and also have spectrum sharing agreements with Inmarsat). Harbinger is also a major investor in some other alternative wireless providers, notably Augere, which is building WiMAX systems in emerging markets and bidding for an Indian license.

The new Harbinger plan reflects some of Google’s vision of building a wholesale-only network with large amounts of capacity, to be used by a large number of partners, either in conventional MVNO deals or on a more on-demand basis. Customers could include fixed and mobile operators; ‘long tail’ providers of specialized services for specific regions or verticals; device makers and retailers, Kindle-style; public safety or machine-to-machine companies. All this reflects the strategy of Clearwire, in which Google invests, and which also has over 100MHz of spectrum in most markets for its 4G network. Clearwire has chosen WiMAX, but its model is based on increasingly broad numbers of wholesale partners too.

The major cellcos can benefit from such initiatives by partnering with them to alleviate their own spectrum shortages, but if the US ends up with two national wholesale networks, this will significantly shift the balance of power away from Verizon and AT&T, and should boost competition by focusing on a business model designed from scratch for the open web and even the bitpipe.

If Harbinger’s scheme goes to plan, it would build its LTE network by 2015, according to FCC filings made on Friday. Harbinger will definitely use the 23MHz of spectrum held by SkyTerra, and hopes also to include Terrestar’s chunk. When Harbinger took control of SkyTerra, the FCC set the condition that the firm must be a wholesaler, and must not derive more than 25% of its traffic from deals with Verizon and AT&T, in order to open the field to smaller players. The FCC, in its desire to boost wireless availability and competition, has relaxed some of the conditions placed on the hybrid licenses in 2003 - notably there will be a less rigid obligation that players in the L and S bands must build out terrestrial and satellite networks in parallel. This means that Harbinger can consolidate the spectrum it controls and, as long as it commits to a fairly rapid terrestrial build-out, the satellite adjunct will be largely at its own discretion.

Harbinger is envisaging a network roll-out program that would mirror AT&T’s in timing, with the first cities going live by the third quarter of 2011 and covering 9m POPs. The trials would start late this year in Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona. The next target would be to cover 100m POPs by the end of 2012, 145m by the end of 2013 and 260m by the end of 2015. Harbinger said in its statements to the FCC that all major markets would be installed by the end of the second quarter of 2013.

One big question mark - financing. The network is likely to cost around $5bn in capex, and there is no mention of who might support the initial outlay, in the FCC documents.

Источник: 4G Trends

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