FCC clears way for global paging New systems to rely on small satellites

January 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In a move that could make it harder to avoid telephone calls, the Federal Communications Commission yesterday assigned a small block of radio frequencies for new satellite paging services that would let people send and receive brief messages anywhere on the globe. The system would also make it easier to track stolen cars and find lost hikers.

Using about two dozen small, relatively inexpensive satellites that orbit a few hundred miles over the earth, the services are expected to let people communicate with hand-held devices that cost a few hundred dollars each. They could also serve as tracking devices, pinpointing within one mile the location of a person or a vehicle with such a device.

Officials at the FCC said they hoped to issue operating licenses by the end of this year. The companies promoting the systems hope to launch satellites by the end of 1994.

As envisioned by one company hoping to launch such a system, each message would cost a few cents to transmit and would be limited to about 100 characters -- comparable to messages sent by sophisticated paging devices that are already available. But the new satellites would have a vastly greater reach and wider applications.

Trucking companies, for example, would be able to track their drivers and communicate with them. Cargo companies could track the progress of goods being shipped around the world. Hikers and bicyclists could communicate from remote areas, and the police might track stolen vehicles equipped with the device.

Licensing for the individual companies could move very quickly, because all of the companies that proposed such systems recently agreed on technical rules that would accommodate the different transmission systems they use.

"Because it is so low cost, we see it changing a lot of things," said Alan B. Renshaw, project manager at Starsys Global Positioning Inc. of Lanham, Md.

"We think every car will have a device built in so it can be retrieved when it is stolen."

But the technology will also face stiff competition, and its market prospects are unclear. Qualcomm Inc., a company in San Diego, Calif., already offers a satellite message service for trucking companies that uses geostationary satellites 22,300 miles over the earth.

The Qualcomm service can send and receive messages of up to 1,900 characters and is far more sophisticated than those envisioned in yesterday's FCC action. But the equipment and computer software carried by each truck cost about $4,000, many times more expensive than the devices planned for the new services.

Other competition is also likely from conventional paging and cellular telephone companies that are offering increasingly sophisticated services.

Starsys, which is primarily owned by the American subsidiary of a French satellite company, CLS, wants to launch a 24-satellite system for $250 million by early 1995. Orbcomm, a subsidiary of Orbital Sciences Corp. in Fairfax, Va., intends to launch 26 satellites by the end of next year and predicts the cost will be about $128 million.

All of the new services employ what are known as "little low-earth-orbit satellites," a bargain-basement approach to satellite communications, using simple spacecraft that are small enough to rest on an ordinary desk.

Orbital Sciences plans to launch its satellites on a small rocket it developed, called the Pegasus, which has already been used twice to launch small research satellites for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Starsys officials say they may also use the Pegasus, which is launched from an airplane rather than from the ground, but they can also use rockets marketed by Arianespace of Europe or small rockets from other countries.

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